Luna Rossa have made an immediate impact on their return to America’s Cup competition, their two new AC45 teams performing admirably in front of a passionate home crowd at the America’s Cup World Series event in Naples in mid-April.

Boss of the Prada fashion house, Patrizio Bertelli, looked like he’d had enough of the America’s Cup after that protracted period of court-room bitching between Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli. But it seems he couldn’t stay away after all. There were signs that the Italian team might be thinking of a comeback when they started competing in the Extreme Sailing Series which, with its Extreme 40 catamarans and spectator-oriented short-course racing, in many ways formed the template for the AC World Series.

British helmsman Paul Campbell-James steered the Luna Rossa boat to victory in last year’s Extreme Sailing Series, and it was at the end of last year that it became clear that the rumours about the Italian challenger making a return to the Cup were true. A team member told me that one of the reasons Bertelli decided to come back was he’s making so much money from China’s new love affair with Prada luxury goods that he was looking for ways to spend his new-found profits from the Far East. Well, a late run at the 34th America’s Cup, and all that entails, should relieve him of a good portion of that extra cash.

Latecomers they may be, but the results in Naples demonstrate just what a productive winter the Italians enjoyed downunder, working closely with their allies, Emirates Team New Zealand, during the Auckland summer. In fact, the two new Luna Rossa crew rather put Dean Barker’s team in the shade, along with many of the other more established campaigns.

Skippering the two Luna Rossa boats are two British high-performance sailors - the aforementioned Campbell-James at the helm of ‘Swordfish’ and Chris Draper steering ‘Piranha’. Draper made his mark at the helm of Team Korea’s AC45 last season, when the former 49er World Champion and Olympic medallist frequently bettered the more experienced and better funded campaigns on the ACWS circuit.

However, with Team Korea’s future looking uncertain, Draper accepted an offer to join the fledgling Italian campaign. Judging by the result in Naples, Draper’s decision to jump ship was a good move for sailor and employer. Both Luna Rossa teams progressed to either side of the semi-final draw in the match racing regatta, with Swordfish succumbing to Artemis Racing. In a one-match final, Draper fluffed his pre-start manoeuvre, reaching the start line a boatlength behind Terry Hutchinson and Artemis, and never managing to get back in to the contest. Even so, a 2nd place was none too shabby.

Unfazed by his loss in the match racing, Draper made the best start of the nine boats in the final, big-points fleet race, sailing into an early lead. He held off a late charge from Oracle Racing Spithill to win the final race, and with it the Fleet Racing Championship in Naples. As the Piranha crew crossed the finish line, the Naples crowds went crazy. Coming to Naples really was a reminder that there is no nation in the world more passionate about their sport - even sailing - than Italy. And there’s more to come in May with the next ACWS event in Venice.

Draper commented after winning the fleet racing: "We sailed along the shore after the finish, and it's insane to see how many people are here. As a sailor you'd never imagine having so many people watching and to have that many people is unbelievable. It's great for the sport, and great to be part of an Italian team in front of all these people.”

It must be gutting for Vincenzo Onorato to have seen Luna Rossa soaking up all the plaudits from his home crowd. It has almost been forgotten that less than a year ago, the Neapolitan owner of the Mascalzone Latino team was still the official Challenger of Record, looking to mount his own challenge for the 34th America’s Cup. But business problems and disagreements with Oracle Racing on the direction of the Cup saw him depart the stage, while Bertelli has now picked up the baton for Italian sailing fans.

Luna Rossa’s early success will have the other big teams scratching their heads about what they need to do to regain the kind of dominance they were displaying last season. For Emirates Team New Zealand, Naples started well enough, including a day of back-to-back wins in the fleet racing. But they were knocked out in the early stages of the match racing and some poor performances in the latter stages of the regatta saw them drop to 3rd overall in the fleet racing.

James Spithill didn’t fare much better in the match racing, but did at least make amends by finishing runner-up in the fleet racing, and was pleased to have moved ahead of the Kiwis in the overall standings for the 2011/12 season which concludes in Newport, Rhode Island this June.

Another well-funded campaign, Artemis Racing, almost didn’t make it through the event after capsizing in the heinously windy and wavy conditions of the first day in Naples. We’ve seen boats get themselves upright and complete races after capsizing, but once the Artemis wing rig was washing up and down in the brutal waves off Naples, it didn’t stand a chance. The fragile wing was trashed, and Terry Hutchinson was fortunate that there was a spare rig onshore which they could use for the rest of the regatta.

That rig was formerly used by Aleph, no longer required by the French team which a few days before Naples announced that it hadn’t been able to raise the funding to continue, bowing out of the America’s Cup. Aleph’s loss was Artemis’s gain, enabling the Swedes to complete the event. After that disastrous start to the regatta, Artemis redeemed themselves by winning the match racing, although a 7th in the fleet racing was still below par for this well organised, ambitious challenge.

Aside from Luna Rossa’s outstanding debut, Nathan Outteridge also made his mark as the replacement skipper for Team Korea. Just 26 years old, the young Australian is the reigning World Champion in the International Moth class - tiny 11-foot boats that fly around at similar speeds to AC45 catamarans due to their futuristic hydrofoiling technology - and also the 49er Olympic skiff. The 45-footer is the biggest boat he’s steered, he’s had limited experience in catamarans or sailing in teams of more than two people, but Outteridge took to the AC45 like a duck to water. After the hugely challenging big wind and waves of day one in Naples, Team Korea was lying in 3rd overall in the fleet racing. Outteridge was pulling off some sensational starts and, while he and the crew couldn’t always hold it together all the way through a race, a 5th overall in the fleet racing shows enormous potential.

The pecking order in this racing is much less clear than it has been in the keelboat racing of old. By no means are the biggest, wealthiest teams having it all their own way, as Oracle tactician and America’s Cup winner John Kostecki acknowledged: “It's one-design sailing. The bigger teams get to a certain level and then make smaller improvements where the newer teams have big improvements and close the gap pretty quick. It's good to see, obviously great racing and exciting for us on the course and exciting for the fans to watch."

Kostecki also knows that when the game moves on up to the AC72 catamarans, money will talk, and the pecking order will come into play once more, putting Oracle firmly back at the front of the grid. For now, though, the AC World Series offers the young guns and poorer teams a great chance to show what they’re made of, and it’s great to see.