Monza is famous for its tifosi, Marina Bay is renowned as F1’s cosmopolitan night race and Silverstone is notorious for its traffic. But the Brazilian Grand Prix? It’s become known for its violent muggings.
It reads as a harsh assessment, but it is no generalisation. Almost without fail F1’s annual visit to São Paulo is marred by some hostile run-in, usually with armed thieves.
Perhaps the highest profile incident was Jenson Button’s close escape in 2010, when the Briton alleged a gang wielding machine guns confronted him as he drove out of the circuit.
Fortunately his McLaren team had equipped him with an armoured car driven by a policeman, who crashed their way through traffic to escape the area.
A group of Sauber mechanics, however, were not so lucky and had five armed men raid their car while stopped at traffic lights.
This year was Mercedes’s turn, and a bus of team engineers was intercepted and robbed at gunpoint while leaving the circuit on Friday night.
“Gunshots fired, gun held at one’s head,” Lewis Hamilton tweeted. “This happens every single year here. F1 and the teams need to do more, there no excuse!”
Some of my team were held up at gun point last night leaving the circuit here in Brazil. Gun shots fired, gun held at ones head. This is so upsetting to hear. Please say a prayer for my guys who are here as professionals today even if shaken.
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) November 11, 2017
This happens every single year here. F1 and the teams need to do more, there’s no excuse!
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) November 11, 2017
Fortunately no-one was hurt, but on the same stretch of road a car of FIA officials and another of Williams team personnel were both targeted by armed men, though both escaped unharmed.
“Heavy police reinforcements will be on duty for the remainder of the event,” the FIA said in a statement to media on Saturday.
“In order to minimise risk we would strongly advise that you remove car park passes when exiting the circuit and only reapply them when close to the circuit entry gate.
“It is also advisable to remove paddock passes and, if possible, to change any clothing with outlet-oriented branding (such as TV networks) before exiting the circuit.”
This is of course no attack on the people of Brazil, by all accounts welcoming and passionate in that way that enamours so much of the world to the country and South America.
Likewise it should go without saying that violence is perpetrated by a minority of Brazilians — but then the race track borders one of the nation’s sprawling favelas, infamous no-go zones for visitors.
So even with updated safety guidelines — and even before considering the ethics of holding a multimillion-dollar event next to such a socio-economically depressed part of the city, the situation begs the question: should Formula One be traipsing into such an obviously dangerous part of Brazil when the risk of violent crime against members of its travelling circus is practically certain? After all, not all those attending the race have the advantage of an armoured car or hired security detail.
The only race we go to where there’s a constant threat of being shot in the face. What a genuine joy this place is. https://t.co/N6zBNhhmQX
— Will Buxton (@thebuxtonblog) November 11, 2017
It is of course a hard judgement to come to.
The Autódromo José Carlos Pace has a long history, having hosted all but 10 Brazilian grands prix since Brazil made its F1 championship debut in 1973, and the circuit’s sweeping turns were memorialised forever in 2008, when it delivered perhaps the most dramatic conclusion of any motor racing championship in history.
The Brazilian fans are equally famous. Raucous and passionate, they turn up in their tens of thousands every year to express the nation’s affinity for motor racing.
It has a love of racing, too, that has made Brazil a fixture on the F1 grid, which has featured at least one Brazilian every season since two-time champion Emerson Fittipaldi’s debut in 1970. Triple champion Nelson Piquet followed three years later, and Ayrton Senna, perhaps the most famous driver of all, entered his first race in 1984.
More recently São Paulo natives Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa have endeared themselves as two of the sport’s favourite sons, but with the latter’s imminent retirement, 2018 will be Formula One’s first season in almost half a century without a representative from South America’s largest country.
Promises of increased security to protect #F1 people in Brazil a failure. Attempted robbery on Pirelli personnel leaving track tonight….
— Jon Noble (@NobleF1) November 12, 2017
Moreover, with ongoing political and economic crises gripping the country, the state-owned circuit is desperate for a private buyer. Negotiations are ongoing, but the race’s immediate future remains at risk despite its contract running until 2020.
It is easy to see why the sport’s new commercial rights holder, administering F1 with an American flair that values statistics and history, might be tempted to hold onto the grand prix and its historic significance, and indeed it would be a shame for F1 to end the passionate relationship it has with Brazil.
But one can’t help but come back to that principal question: is the Brazilian Grand Prix worth the ever-present risk? Can Formula One continue risking the lives of those who work to put on that show in the first place?
A grand prix, after all, is ultimately a workplace for thousands of people. It is work driven by passion, but work it remains — and surely everyone is entitled to go to work without fear of having a gun held to their head on the way home.
Perhaps Formula One would be better off without the Brazilian Grand Prix.