* U.S. team beat New Zealand to clinch qualifiers
* Oracle Team USA earn crucial bonus point with win
* Britain’s Land Rover BAR defeat SoftBank Team Japan
* Sweden’s Artemis Racing beat Groupama Team France (Updates with challenger semi-final details, Spithill quotes)
June 3 (Reuters) - Oracle Team USA ensured they will start their defence of the America’s Cup with a crucial extra point by beating Emirates Team New Zealand and Britain’s Land Rover BAR to win the qualifier event on Saturday.
The result means the U.S. team will have a point lead against whoever gets to challenge them in a head-to-head match, which will be won by the first team to get to seven points.
Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill forced a penalty on New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling at the start of their race and built an early lead.
A couple of uncharacteristic errors from New Zealand meant they were unable to get ahead of Spithill’s 50-foot (15 metre) catamaran and were beaten easily.
The new breed of craft competing for the oldest trophy in international sport lifts out of the water on hydrofoils, so far “flying” at speeds of more than 40 knots.
Emirates Team New Zealand became the first team to complete an entire America’s Cup race without their hulls touching the water on Friday as they knocked out Groupama Team France.
But they could not repeat the feat against Oracle Team USA and the U.S. crew, with a win over Ben Ainslie’s British team, finished top of the qualifier table.
The holders now have to sit on the sidelines until June 17 when they will defend the cup against one of the challengers.
In the meantime, they will be looking at flying in a team of boat builders and components to make further changes in their quest for speed, Spithill said at a televised briefing.
“The (bonus) point could end up being incredibly important. We wanted that point... it created this real hunger for everyone. Every point you can get is very powerful,” he added.
Emirates Team New Zealand, as the highest finishing challenger, picked Land Rover BAR as their opponents in the semi-finals of the challenger event starting on Sunday.
“We had a look at the forecast over the coming week and thought that it was our best chance of progressing forward,” New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling said at a televised briefing.
Ainslie has had a troubled campaign so far, including a clash which holed his catamaran and nearly ended his dream of bringing the cup ‘home’ to Britain. Despite some good starts, the British challenger has been off the pace in light winds.
“For us it will be a real battle, but we’re up for it and looking forward to it,” Ainslie said at the briefing.
The New Zealand choice leaves Sweden’s Artemis Racing and SoftBank Team Japan as the other head-to-head semi-final.
The first crew in each of the two semi-finals to win five races progresses to the challenger final and whoever wins that takes on Oracle Team USA for the America’s Cup itself.
New Zealand are seeking to avenge their 2013 defeat by Oracle Team USA, which is bank-rolled by Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison, in San Francisco.
In Saturday’s second race, Land Rover BAR won a thrilling duel against SoftBank Team Japan, with the British boat getting the better of Dean Barker’s crew at the start.
But the Japanese team chased them round Bermuda’s Great Sound and were penalised after a close call between them.
Groupama Team France finished their campaign with a loss to Artemis Racing. The French skipper Franck Cammas said in a televised interview that he was not yet sure whether Groupama would be supporting them for another tilt at the America’s Cup.
“We are working on that ... We want to be there at the starting line next time,” Cammas added. (Reporting by Alexander Smith in London; Editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris)