The IMOCA crews on the five entries in The Ocean Race are stuffed full of some of the most talented sailors in the world, men and women from both single and double-handed backgrounds and from fully-crewed racing too. The standard has probably never been higher in the history of The Ocean Race.

The skipper on each boat apart – in each crew there are going to be key players, sailors who might make the difference on this long and testing race, sailors who might contend for the Most Valuable Player award on each boat in six months’ time when the race reaches the finish at Genoa.

As we await the start from Alicante on Sunday, here are five selections in this category – sailors who can be expected to play key roles on their respective boats, as described by those who know them well from time spent together on the water.

Sebastien Col, sports director at MerConcept, on Tom Leperche, crew on Holcim/PRB

“Tom has the right mix between self-confidence and also recognising that he is still quite new in the game, at just 25 years old. But it’s also a balance between being fresh, bringing a lot of energy and new ideas, and at the same time being quite experienced already. It's good to have someone like him in the team, bringing a fresh vision with good added value. He’s very technical – he’s an engineer – so he understands the technical side and is able to learn very quickly.

Tom’s a very good overall sailor, very good. With only five people on board in this race, you need all-rounders and Tom is good on weather, good at pushing the boat, understanding the limits, but at the same time bringing fresh ideas. The Ocean Race is a long race and it's going to be all about improving day-after-day, and this is how Tom will make an impact after a few legs.

© © Georgia Schofield | polaRYSE | HolcimPRB

Like all young and talented sailors, Tom wants to win everything – the Vendée Globe, the Route du Rhum, The Ocean Race, the Ultime circuit also. I think he has no limits and this is a great opportunity for him to learn from Kevin Escoffier. It is also Tom's first time to sail in the Southern Ocean – so it's a great opportunity for him to learn a lot of things.

Temperamentally Tom's very stable. In my view all champions have this vision, and can see things coming earlier than others, so they are not really surprised or pushed into a corner where they start to panic. I had the chance to work with him on the SVR Lazartigue Ultime trimaran, and it was super-impressive because these boats are very complex, there is a lot of technology on board and it’s a multihull. So, if you make a big mistake, then it can be the end of the campaign. But Tom handled that very well, thanks in part to his excellent temperament.”

Will Harris, crew member on Team Malizia, on Nico Lunven, navigator and tactician on Team Malizia

“Nico is really our weather, tactics and strategy expert. He’s got this fantastic background of being a short-handed sailor who has won the Solitaire du Figaro two times, and that’s really the core value that he brings to our team.We love having Nico there, just focused on the weather, and making the decisions around the weather and strategy, because it is such an important part of this racing, as well as making the boat go fast.

Nico is a very humble sailor. He is never the one shouting the loudest and, in order to get the most out of him, you need to allow him to have his voice. He’s from a short-handed background, where he is an absolute wizard on weather and tactics and, when he’s on his own, he’s just very strong.

© (c) Jimmy Horel

Nico is a managed-risk type of person. He often doesn’t go for the big strategy call option. He’s very analytical – it’s always about the data and the routing and he just has that. He will spend loads of time going through it, to make sure that he’s the best-informed, before he makes a decision on weather and routing. Every bit of sailing he’s done, I think he’s learnt from it.

On board, he’s funny and likes to have a good joke every now and again, but when it comes to the racing he becomes pretty serious. He’s very intent on understanding a lot about the weather and he’s quite rigorous. He knows when his weather reports are coming in and he’s straight to it. He never misses a beat in that sense. He will be with us all the way to Newport, so about 75% of the miles, and we will have a pretty good idea of where we are in the standings by then.”

Ian Walker, winning skipper of the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15, on Simon Fisher, navigator on 11th Hour Racing Mãlama

“I’ve known ‘Si Fi’ since he was 19 and gave him his first job in the America’s Cup. The things that stand out about him are his all-round skills. He has been a first class offshore helmsman, he’s a world class trimmer and he’s a world class navigator, and I imagine he would be pretty good if he went up on the bow as well.

In terms of all-round sailing skills, he is probably unsurpassed. Then there is his fitness, strength and robustness. He has always had a big engine and he looks after himself and you can count on him 24/7.

And the last thing is his persona – his character, his personality. He’s a nice guy to be around, he is very level so he won’t get carried away if things are going very well, and he won’t get down in the dumps if it’s not going well. He’s had some highs and lows in his career and I think he is really good at just getting the best out of the people around him. Fundamentally, he is a good bloke to be around, if you are going to spend a lot of time in a small space.

© © Amory Ross / 11th Hour Racing

Si Fi’s experience is huge. It’s not just the number of times he has sailed around the world. He has sailed at the highest level of inshore grand-prix racing, as well as his Volvo Ocean Race experience, and then there’s the depth of contact he has with other top-class navigators and meteorologists who he has worked with.

By nature he’s actually is quite conservative. I am not saying he is not prepared to make bold decisions. But he plays the long game. If you look back at the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing campaign, when we won the race in 2014/15, we did that; we minimised risk, we let other people make mistakes.

If we are being honest, looking at the race this time, much of your navigation might be dictated by what’s smart, in terms of protecting your equipment and your boat, rather than trying to get from A to B in the fastest possible time, come what may. And that’s very much the way Si Fi approaches the race.”

Iker Martínez, former Volvo Ocean Race skipper and Olympic gold medallist, on Sébastien Simon, crew on Guyot Environnement-Team Europe

“The Ocean Race is going to be very hard for all the IMOCA crews in boats that were not built for this race, apart from 11th Hour Racing Team. The rest of the teams have good chances, but they are going to need to learn fast. They need to understand how to deal with the boat with so many people on board, use the systems properly and learn especially how to race in a different mode.

Understanding the boat is very important. Today there are not more than 10 sailors in the world that are at the very top of the IMOCA Class, and from this there are five that have a big, big talent – coming from the Figaro. They are good everywhere and have been involved for the last five years in the design and development of the boats.  Seb is one of these top-five guys.

He is coming from the Figaro class where he has been winning the most important races. He is very good in boat-to-boat racing and then he has been involved in a very difficult task for the last four years – designing his own boat and working on the development of it, within the limitations of budget and timing. He has been thinking only about IMOCA 60s – how to use the boat, the foils, how to trim the foils and the boat, and how to manage the sails.

For Seb, the most difficult thing is that the crew has not been together long and they really need to develop their skills as a team and that takes some time. I have been sailing with Seb across the Atlantic and off the north of France – I think he is an easy-going guy and he will adapt himself pretty easily to this challenge. He is respectful and is pretty easy-going.

For sure, he has a really bright future as a potential winner of the Vendée Globe. He has the talent, he has the aptitude and he has the passion.”

Paul Meilhat, skipper of Biotherm, on Anthony Marchand, crew on Biotherm

“There are many attributes to Anthony. He is my co-skipper which means that, if I am not in good shape, he can manage the crew and take over that responsibility. He is the reserve person in charge, so if I injure myself he could be the skipper.

We have sailed together a lot and he has the experience of the Volvo Ocean Race that he did eight years ago on MAPFRE. Over the last two years he has been sailing a lot on the Ultime Actual, so he has experience of working within a crew and how to manage safety, and to take risks – or not – to make the boat go faster.

On board, Anthony is always focused – he is never like ‘OK, I have to take some time out.’ When he is sailing, he is always pushing at the max – always – so he is really, really competitive. Me, I love the big picture, but Anthony likes to focus on the details, so we are quite complimentary.

He is probably the most experienced member of the crew in this sort of racing, alongside Sam Davies, so he is going to be a key player because we don’t know this race. And there are two ways to approach it – we can be afraid or we can be excited, and we are going to start being excited!”

Ed Gorman