The Brazilian Grand Prix, the penultimate round of the championship held between November 9 and 12, was marred by a series of armed muggings of team staff and other F1 personnel as they left the circuit on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
In particular a Mercedes team bus was held up by a group of armed men while stopped at a red light just outside the circuit. One team member reportedly had a gun held to his head while others were robbed of their possessions, including laptops and passports.
“Gunshots fired, gun held at one’s head,” Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton tweeted. “This happens every single year here. F1 and the teams need to do more, there no excuse!”
An armoured car ferrying FIA personnel and a bus of Williams team members were also targeted on the same stretch of road that night, though both groups escaped unharmed.
Despite the publicly owned circuit promising a beefing-up of security for subsequent days of the event, Sauber was involved in a ramming incident on the Saturday night and a carload of Pirelli staff was set upon on the Sunday night.
So concerning was the security situation that Pirelli and McLaren cancelled a tyre test planned for the Monday and Tuesday at the Interlagos circuit, favouring instead a rushed return to Europe.
Formula One is well acquainted with Sao Paulo’s brand of armed theft. Each and every year thieves have targeted staff as they finish their workday and leave the circuit, which notoriously borders a favela in the southern reaches of the sprawling South American city.
The best-known incident was Jenson Button’s run-in with a group of machine gun-toting men in 2010. Fortunately his McLaren-supplied armoured car had an armed ex-policeman behind the wheel, who crashed them through the gridlocked traffic to escape the area unscathed.
But even by these standards the 2017 event was an escalation.
“Disappointed is not a strong enough word,” an F1 spokesman said. “But it is not our call … we are actively involved, but we cannot be experts in every city we go to.”
Sao Paulo Mayor Joao Doria, who had said he had bolstered police resources around the circuit, said the sale of the track, negotiations over which are ongoing, would improve the security situation.
“Remember that the privatisation of the racetrack will contribute to this [security],” he said. “So we will have security systems not only in the internal area but also in the external area of the racetrack.”
Though three bidders, supposedly including ex F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, are reportedly in contention, the sale of the circuit would seem tenuously related to the security situation given any investor will have to shoulder an estimated US$30 million (B982.2mn) loss per race in a worsening political and economic climate.
The sport has long had a presence in South America, but F1 has been inching slowly towards a deal to renew relations with Argentina, which last hosted a round of the world championship in 1998 in Buenos Aires.
The Brazilian Grand Prix contract has three more years to run, but its immediate future may depend on Formula One’s submission of findings to the FIA World Motor Sport Council on December 6, where an adverse finding against the promoter could spell the end of the 44-year race.
The Formula One season concludes with the 2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this Sunday (Nov 26).
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