Could Brexit be Mercedes’ biggest F1 hindrance this season?

Lewis Hamilton
AP
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MONTMELO, Spain — Mercedes seeks its sixth consecutive Formula One title this season. But an off-track issue could derail that.

The looming possibility of a chaotic rupture of the United Kingdom from the European Union that would be most problematic, as far as boss Toto Wolff is concerned.

“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 U.K. 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 U.K.

Wolff fears that an ugly Brexit will give an advantage to those teams based on the European continent. That would mean Ferrari, Mercedes’ 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 U.K. and operate out of the U.K.,” Wolff said.

He fears the disruption affecting not just the movement of teams, but also the shipping and delivering of car parts and Mercedes’ 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 U.K., and any major disruption in borders and taxes would massively damage the Formula 1 industry in the U.K.,” Wolff said. “We have a fantastic access to talent today in the U.K. Formula One has grown. What Silicon Valley is to the U.S., Formula One is to the U.K., and at the moment, there is a risk whether the U.K. 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.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.