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Formula One drivers find peace in Switzerland

Winning formula: many of Lewis Hamilton's neighbours are also his rivals

(Keystone)

If you look down the start grid of a Formula One grand prix, you'll find more than half the drivers have one thing in common: they all live in Switzerland.

Former Swiss Formula One driver Marc Surer says it's not just for tax reasons but also because they can get away from the stress that the sport now involves.

The drivers, who are household names around the world, are the focus of cameras, reporters and fans.

When Lewis Hamilton giggles like a teenager as he crosses the finish line as winner or when Felipe Massa shoves journalists in anger because he's lost what seemed like a certain victory, the drivers' emotions are caught by the cameras and microphones and sent around the globe.

The Formula One circus is a mixture of high-risk sport, extravagant glamour and extremely tough business. During the season, the drivers and their teams are plunged into this flashy world every two weeks. After the race, there's only one thing on their minds: escaping to an oasis of calm.

For more than half the drivers that means returning home to Switzerland.

The most recent arrival in the community of speed merchants is Lewis Hamilton. The runner-up in the 2007 world championship left Britain and has made his home in the village of Luins on Lake Geneva.

High-flyer

Hamilton thus took a step that many of his toughest rivals made a long time ago. Former world champion Kimi Räikkönen left the forests of Finland for Wollerau in canton Schwyz. Dubbed the "Iceman" for his cool, Räikkönen lives almost next door to his Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa.

Double world champion Fernando Alonso of Spain decided on Mont-sur-Rolle in canton Vaud, while Heikki Kovalainen of Finland – winner of the 2008 Hungarian grand prix – enjoys his race-free time in Coppet in the same canton.

"For Formula One drivers, Switzerland is mainly attractive for its security – only afterwards for its tax breaks," former Swiss Formula One driver Marc Surer told swissinfo.

Surer still has close ties with Formula One as a commentator for Germany's Premiere television channel.

"Undisturbed"

For Alonso it had become impossible to continue to live in Spain.

"His house and his parents were besieged and he could no longer visit restaurants without fans and the media at his heels. But in Switzerland he is undisturbed. All the drivers appreciate this peace, as did Michael Schumacher," Surer said.

For Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld, who drive for the former Sauber team now owned by BMW, a home near the Hinwil factory near Zurich is a point of honour, so to speak.

While Kubica of Poland found a residence in Hinwil itself, Heidfeld, from Germany, and his family live in Stäfa across Lake Zurich.

When Heidfeld moved there, he argued that although tax breaks were a pleasant side effect, it was the quality of life that was the determining factor. The local people were very discreet and left him in peace, he said.

"As a result, after all the travelling and stress, I enjoy coming back to this cosy home to the place where I can tank up on new energy," Heidfeld said.

Near an airport

The peace and low taxes aren't the only plus points, according to Surer. "Many drivers travel in their own aircraft so living near an airport also plays a role."

This mobility is also the reason why the Formula One drivers in Switzerland are divided into the Geneva and Zurich groups.

There are only a few who would seem to be "outsiders" – Jarno Trulli lives in Pontresina at the foot of the Bernina Pass, while the up-and-coming German Adrian Sutil has settled quite unspectacularly in Oensingen, canton Solothurn.

In the old days grand prix heroes opted for the glamour of Monaco. As the roulette wheel brings enough income into the principality, tax breaks are not an issue because no taxes are levied.

There must therefore be other reasons why Switzerland has now taken over from Monaco. Two factors have contributed: the Swiss landscape and the demands on today's racing drivers.

Watchful eye

"They have to carry out their sport programmes practically every day. Switzerland is ideal for that with its mountains and green expanses," Surer said.

Monaco on the other hand offered few possibilities except in fitness studios. To do sport, you had to travel inland to the mountains.

One person who also travels inland but here in Switzerland is Bernie Ecclestone. The small, tough Briton cleaned up the amateur image of Formula One and transformed it into a multi-billion franc enterprise.

As a multi-billionaire himself, Ecclestone not only owns a villa in Gstaad, but also a hotel. From his residence in the Bernese Oberland, he can also keep a watchful eye on his drivers – even when Formula One has a weekend off.

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Renat Künzi

Key facts

Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher has lived for years in Switzerland.
Not so long ago he moved into a new home at Gland in canton Vaud.
It has a villa with access to Lake Geneva, stables, a helicopter landing pad and a cinema.
Schumacher and his successors belong to about 4,000 foreigners who enjoy tax privileges in Switzerland.

end of infobox

Formula One drivers in Switzerland

Kimi Räikkönen: Wollerau/canton Schwyz
Felipe Massa: Wollerau/canton Schwyz
Lewis Hamilton: Luins/canton Vaud
Heikki Kovalainen: Coppet/canton Vaud
Fernando Alonso: Mont-sur-Rolle/canton Vaud
David Coulthard: Villars/canton Vaud
Nick Heidfeld: Stäfa/canton Zurich
Robert Kubica: Hinwil/canton Zurich
Jarno Trulli: Pontresina/canton Graubünden
Sebastian Vettel: Walchwil/canton Zug
Adrian Sutil: Oensingen/canton Solothurn
Sébastien Bourdais: Morges/canton Vaud

end of infobox

Switzerland and Formula One

Formula One grand prix races have been banned in Switzerland since a racing disaster killed 80 spectators in 1955. However, Swiss links to the sport are significant.

The main figure is Peter Sauber, founder and head of the Sauber Formula One team that was sold to BMW in 2007. The new name is BMW Sauber.

The factory remains at Hinwil near Zurich and employs about 420 people. The Hinwil headquarters places annual orders with Swiss firms to the tune of about SFr50 million ($45.5 million).

Switzerland produced Formula One stars Jo Siffert, Clay Regazzoni and Marc Surer.

Since Surer's retirement in 1985, no Swiss has made the breakthrough into Formula One.

end of infobox

Grand Prix Belgium 2008

Lewis Hamilton came third in Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix.

The McLaren driver had finished first but was given a 25-second penalty for an illegal manoeuvre.

Felipe Massa on Ferrari was declared the winner ahead of Nick Heidfeld on BMW Sauber.

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