LONDON: The new Formula One season is underway but the action on the track is being overshadowed by concerns over the implications of Brexit, with so many teams calling Britain home.
Seven of the 10 F1 teams are based in Britain and there are nine European races this season, making the nation’s impending departure from the European Union an unwanted headache even for such a globalised sport.
Several teams have warned that Britain’s departure from the EU, especially if it comes without a withdrawal agreement, will create logistical nightmares for an industry that relies on international staff and specialised goods moving around.
But opinions on the likely impact of Brexit differ sharply.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has warning a no-deal divorce could cause the “mother of all messes” while F1 motorsport boss Ross Brawn is more sanguine.
Mercedes, based in Northamptonshire, in central England, have won the past five drivers’ and constructors’ championships, with British driver Lewis Hamilton winning four of those.
“Brexit is a major concern for all of us that live in the UK and operate out of the UK,” Wolff said at during pre-season testing in Spain last month, before the opening race in Melbourne.
“Formula One teams travel to races at least 21 times a year — we are moving in and out of the UK, our people move in and out of the UK,” he added, referring to potential customs delays that could be caused by Brexit.
“The way we get parts and services is just in time at the last minute… taxes would massively damage the Formula One industry in the UK.”
Visas and right to work concerns were also high on Wolff’s worry list, thanks to the 26 nationalities who work for the team.
David Richards, the chairman of Motorsport UK, British racing’s governing body, voiced fears last month that Mercedes might have to consider their future in F1 in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Brawn is more relaxed, saying plans are in place and that teams are resourceful and flexible.
“Formula One teams are pretty nomadic and we operate in countries outside of the European Union anyway and I don’t see it as being in any way catastrophic for the UK,” he said earlier this month.
“There will be some irritations I’m sure and things that will be a bit painful but Formula One teams are very good at coping, so I don’t see it being a problem.”
Red Bull chief Christian Horner, speaking in Melbourne, sounded calm despite the confusion over Brexit.
“The reality is it’s business as normal. We’ll wait and see what and if and when Brexit does happen and when it happens then we’ll deal with it but of course you try and put as many ‘what if’ scenarios in place as you can to protect the operation of your business.”
– Doomsday scenario –
McLaren, Williams, Renault, Racing Point and Red Bull are also based in Britain, while Haas have a base in England as well as their headquarters in the United States.
Racing Point team principal Otmar Szafnauer is not losing sleep over a potential doomsday scenario but says a lot depends on the final shape of any deal.
He acknowledged the potential logistical challenges over the transport of parts but said the team currently buys fuel cells from a US company without any issues.
“It would for sure be easier if we didn’t have a hard Brexit,” he said. “It all depends on what Brexit looks like…. There are issues but I don’t think any of them are insurmountable. It’s just the first time you face those issues and if your calendar is so tight it might have an impact.”
For Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul, Britain itself has played a key role in the team’s progress since their return to the grid with their own team for the 2016 season.
“We’ve gone very quickly in recent years and it’s been done in particular thanks to the possibilities offered by the UK, bringing in youngsters, people are coming out from school. We don’t want that to change.”
With their main headquarters in North Carolina, Haas team boss Gunther Steiner hinted his team would have no hesitation in moving their UK operation if Brexit becomes a problem.
“We do not make irrational decisions,” he said. “The big teams have bigger investments than us. And it’s not decided what happens,” he said.
“We are a small team. If anyone can move fast, it’s us. We just pick up our caravan and move to another country.”