Some people create excitement just by walking into a room. Patrizio Bertelli, 53, chairman of the high-flying Prada campaign for the America's Cup, doesn't leave that--or anything else--to chance. He makes sure of the buzz when he appears.

When a few dozen sailing writers and photographers gathered at the Prada camp here recently for an update, the tone was muted as they sipped espresso and munched Italian breakfast cake. Suddenly the place erupted as if Michael Jackson or Madonna had arrived.

Chairs were rearranged, microphones moved. In the middle stood a gray-haired man with a long nose, gesticulating with his reading glasses, forcefully demanding changes. Bertelli!

"He is amazing," said Margarita Bottini, an Italian photographer and writer who has followed the America's Cup for years and knows Bertelli well. "If you go to dinner with him, he spends half the time telling the waiter how to pour the wine, which side to serve dinner from, how to hold the chair for the ladies. He is a perfectionist. He has a special way of doing everything."

Bertelli, who runs the global fashion empire Prada out of Milan with his wife, Miuccia, is the latest in a long line of rich men who caught the America's Cup bug, including Sir Thomas Lipton, Baron Marcel Bich and Ted Turner. But folks like that grow rarer in the sport, having largely been replaced by corporate sponsors who back campaigns as a marketing tool.

The boats now look more like stock cars than sailboats, with logos slathered down the sides and on the mainsails, even on the keels. All, that is, except sleek, silver and red Prada, which has no logos--only the corporate name on the side in bold type, then the boat's poetic name, Luna Rossa (Red Moon), in smaller letters.

For Bertelli, any side benefits transferring from the sport to the top-shelf fashion brand that is booming worldwide are secondary to the quest itself. He wants to win the Cup so badly, he has poured more than $50 million of his own money into the effort, underwriting the entire cost. And from some appearances, he will not tolerate failure any more than he would tolerate incompetent waiters at dinner or improperly placed chairs at a news conference.

"The starting point of my mind and my business sense is always the same--a challenge," Bertelli said during a private chat. "All my life I have pursued this idea."

To that end, Bertelli said, he and his wife control 100 percent of Prada, from the manufacturing processes to the stores to hiring. "I personally hired 60 percent of the people working for us around the world," he said. "Everyone comes to me--chauffeurs, the watchmen, the managers."

Likewise with his pursuit of the Cup, Bertelli casts a long shadow. Every employee is hand-picked by him. When the sailing team does well, he is happy. When it doesn't, by some accounts, he is furious.

Paul Cayard, skipper of AmericaOne, which will face Prada in the best-of-nine challenger finals that begin here Tuesday, said after one of Prada's losses in the semifinals, he watched Bertelli browbeat the crew in plain view. Cayard's compound is next door to Prada's, and he said he could hear every word over the fence. Cayard, who speaks Italian, said: "It was ugly."

The American skipper believes Bertelli's temper and perfectionism will cost the Italians in the fiery crucible of the challenger finals. "He's crazy," said Cayard, who sailed as skipper of the last Italian challenger for the America's Cup, Il Moro di Venezia, in 1992. "I know a lot of people over there, and from what they tell me, when the pressure comes on, he's going to be our best weapon."

Bertelli never strays far from the action, usually riding on a tender behind the race boat during competition. Whether his withering gaze will affect Prada's mild-mannered skipper, Francesco deAngelis, or its fiery Brazilian tactician Torben Grael, is a subject of hot debate. Certainly the Italians did not sail their best in the semifinals, when they lost both times they faced Cayard, lost once to Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes and twice came within an eyelash of losing to France, which finished last in the standings.

After compiling a 26-3 record in the early rounds--the best of any challenger by far--Prada came very close to having to race Stars & Stripes in a sudden-death showdown for a place in the challenger finals. Could Bertelli's relentless demands be to blame?

Prada operations chief Laurent Esquier, a veteran of eight America's Cup campaigns, thinks not. "There's a body language in Italy that Anglo-Saxons don't understand," he said. "If you see us yelling and pushing, it doesn't mean we don't love each other. This is the way we relate to each other."

Said Bertelli with a laugh: "Cayard doesn't have a quiet voice when he is racing."

Most America's Cup followers reckon the challenger finals will come down to a battle of experience against better equipment. Prada, which spent 2 1/2 years developing and testing its two boats and crew, probably has better gear. AmericaOne, with five-time America's Cup veteran Cayard at the helm and a crew of some of the best sailors in the United States, has a smaller budget and less time on the water but far more Cup experience.

Cayard is banking on his ability to get the Italians "roped-up" and rattled by using aggressive tactics to put them off-balance on the water and off. He's counting on Bertelli to augment those efforts with his famous temper.

No one expects Bertelli to change. "He comes from Tuscany," Prada operations chief Aldo Tomasina said. "People from there are very instinctive and direct. They never go around things. They go straight. But you always have a clear indication what's in his mind."

"In Italy," Bertelli said, "we have a saying: People who are not honest have short legs. They don't go far."

But that's in Italy, of course. The America's Cup is a world unto itself, one never known for honesty. Whether the eternal verities of Tuscany apply in the America's Cup knockout rounds is a question only time will answer.

And time is running short.

Challenger Finals

The finals are a best-of-nine series between Prada (33-6 in preliminaries) and AmericaOne (30-10). The winner faces Team New Zealand in the best-of-nine America's Cup match, which begins Feb. 19. This is the schedule, with the dates in the United States' Eastern Time Zone. All races are scheduled to begin at 7:15 p.m. Eastern Time, with television coverage on same-day taped basis.

Monday: Race 1 (ESPN2, 10:30 p.m.)

Tuesday: Race 2 (ESPN2, Midnight Tuesday night)

Wednesday: Race 3 (ESPN2, 10:30 p.m.)

Thursday: Reserve day (race held only to make up previous race lost to weather)

Friday: Race 4 (ESPN2, 12:30 a.m. Friday night)

Saturday: Race 5 (ESPN2, Midnight Saturday night)

Jan. 30: Off

Jan. 31-Feb. 3: Races 6-9*, all times TBA

*If necessary