Switzerland is a place where quite a few F1 drivers choose to live. There are tax benefits, the people are respectful and everything works. The country is one of only three that has a Formula 1 team based on its soil (although Haas might argue that). The FIA is officially based in Paris, but much of the federation’s activity is run from offices in Geneva.
The country has produced some very talented and successful drivers, notably Clay Regazzoni, Jo Siffert, Marc Surer, Sebastien Buemi, not to mention Romain Grosjean, who is half-Swiss and half-French. Switzerland won the A1GP World Cup of Motorsport in 2007-08, while Marcel Fässler has won the World Endurance Championship and is a three-time Le Mans winner. Neel Jani is also a WEC champion and Le Mans winner, while Fabio Leimer won the GP2 title a few years ago. It is a hotbed of motorsport activity – and yet motor racing is banned in Switzerland…
It was not always the case. Switzerland hosted its first Grand Prix in 1934 and for many years it was one of the highlights of the Grand Prix calendar, with the races taking place on the spectacular Bremgarten circuit, in the forests just outside the city of Berne. The track consisted of one sweeping curve after another, with trees all around, different road surfaces and, often, poor weather. It was considered one of the great racing circuits.
When the Formula 1 World Championship began in 1950, Bremgarten was the third race in Europe, following Silverstone and Monaco.
The Le Mans disaster in 1955, in which more than 80 people were killed after Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes ran into the back of Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey and was launched into the crowd, led to the laws being changed in many countries.
The Swiss introduced the Loi Fédérale sur la Circulation Routière in 1959. Article 52 of this states that motor racing is banned. There can be hillclimbs and slaloms, as cars are not racing one another, but rather against the clock.
In the 1960s there were some major hillclimb events, notably Ollon-Villars and Sierra Montana-Crans, which hosted what was known as the Swiss Mountain Grand Prix, but the law forced the Swiss racing fraternity to organize circuit races in neighbouring countries. In 1982 there was even a Swiss Grand Prix, run on the Dijon-Prenois circuit, although this was really only a ruse to allow France to have an additional race that year. The event was won by Keke Rosberg in a Williams, the only victory he scored in his World Championship year.
In the last 15 years, there have been several discussions about whether the ban should be lifted, but many Swiss people are deeply conservative. There was considerable resistance to motor racing even before the Le Mans accident, specifically related to the holding of races on Sundays. The power of religion is waning, with adherence to churches having declined from close to 95 percent in 1980 to about 7o percent today. But now environmental questions are central to the discussion, although the Swiss own more cars per capita than many other European countries, including Britain. In 2009 a motion was passed in the Swiss Lower House, known as the Nationalrat, to allow racing, but it was defeated in the Upper House, known as the Ständerat.
In March 2015, however, the law was modified to allow Formula E, although the electric car racers will still have to abide by a maximum average speed set by whichever canton holds a race.
Some of the roads which made up the Bremgarten circuit are still there, but much has disappeared beneath urban development. Amazingly, however, there is one permanent Swiss racing facility, a tiny circuit called Lignieres, on a mountain plateau in the Jura, near Neufchatel. This was built in 1961 in the hope that the government would change its attitude to racing. Today it is owned by the Touring Club Suisse and is used for driver training.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have some racing in the country…