By Joseph Wilson / The Associated Press
MONTMELO, Spain—Politics, not engines or aerodynamics, is what really worries Mercedes boss Toto Wolff as his team heads into the new Formula One (F1) season seeking a sixth consecutive title.
It’s the looming possibility of a chaotic rupture of the United Kingdom from the European Union (EU) that would be most problematic.
“That is a nightmare scenario that I don’t want to even envisage,” Wolff said on Monday, the opening day of preseason testing near Barcelona.
“If a no-deal Brexit would happen like has been discussed, I think we would have a major impact in terms of our operations going to the races and getting our cars developed and ready.”
Last month, the British Parliament voted down the deal Prime Minister Theresa May had initially reached with the other 27 members of the EU.
The clock is ticking toward March 29, when the UK is due to leave the bloc with or without a deal. That will come with F1 teams preparing for the second grand prix of the season in Bahrain on March 31.
What a divorce would mean without negotiated terms to handle the legal and commercial implication is hard to predict, but most agree there would be a risk for considerable disruption to trade and the legal status of foreigners.
Besides Mercedes, which has its factory 70 miles northwest of London, the Red Bull, Renault, Williams, McLaren and Racing Point teams also have facilities in the UK.
Wolff fears that an ugly Brexit will give an advantage to those teams based on the European continent. That would mean Ferrari, Mercedes’s biggest challenger in recent years, but it also includes the other Italian team, Toro Rosso; Haas, based in the United States; and Switzerland-based Alfa Romeo.
“Brexit is a major concern for us, and it should be a major concern for all of us who live in the UK and operate out of the UK,” Wolff said.
He fears the disruption affecting not just the movement of teams but also the shipping and delivering of car parts and Mercedes’s staff, which has 26 different nationalities represented.
“The way we are getting parts and services is just in time, at the last minute, into the UK, and any major disruption in borders and taxes would massively damage the Formula 1 industry in the UK,” Wolff said. “We have a fantastic access to talent today in the UK. Formula One has grown. What Silicon Valley is to the US, Formula One is to the UK, and at the moment, there is a risk whether the UK can stay as a competitive location as it is today.”
Red Bull team principal Chris Horner is also concerned, but believes that the industry will adjust.
“You can paint a doomsday scenario of Brexit or you can actually maybe see how much it will affect our daily life,” Horner said. “Whether there is no deal, any deal, we will have to deal with it.”
For Sebastian Vettel, the opening day of the F1 preseason couldn’t have gone any better.
Vettel, the runner-up to the title last season, clocked the fastest time, was the busiest driver with 169 laps and, most importantly, felt right at home behind the wheel of his new Ferrari.
“We couldn’t have hoped for a better day,” Vettel said after setting a session-best lap time of one minute, 18.161 seconds. “It was unbelievable. The car was working very well. We had no issues slowing us down.
“It is obviously very early, and this will be meaningless in a couple of weeks, but for now, a huge compliment to everyone at the factory. What they put on the track today was very close to perfection.”
Vettel has the daunting goal of ending Mercedes’s five-year dominance of F1.
Defending champion Lewis Hamilton shared time behind the wheel for Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas and ended up with the ninth-fastest time, but it is more very likely that Mercedes was not aiming to top the leaderboard.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff acknowledged that Ferrari looked quick, but downplayed the importance of lap times in the preseason.
“That is not what tests are about,” Wolff said. “It’s about going through all the parts and looking at all the data.”
Carlos Sainz put in the second-quickest lap in his first ride with McLaren, followed by Haas’s Romain Grosjean and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, who joined the team from Red Bull, and Nico Hulkenberg put in the slowest times of the day, finishing more than 2.8 seconds slower than Vettel.
Williams, which finished last in the team standings last year, missed the first day of testing and is likely to miss Tuesday’s session, as well.
Alfa Romeo, previously known as Sauber, unveiled its new burgundy-and-white car in the pit lane before testing began. Kimi Raikkonen, who joined the team from Ferrari, had the fifth-best time but also went off the track twice without damaging his car.
The season-opening Australian Grand Prix is on March 17.
Image credits: AP