It’s time Formula One reconsidered the Brazilian Grand Prix

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Lewis Hamilton. (Photo: GEPA pictures/Daniel Goetzhaber)

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    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 Formula One’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. Formula One and the teams need to do more, there no excuse!”

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart ? but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (9)

    • November 14th 2017 @ 7:29pm
      steve said | November 14th 2017 @ 7:29pm | ! Report

      Maybe another South American country can host it? Does it have to be Brazil? Safety of all F1 team personnel has to be a priority at the circuit and in their travels to and from the circuit.

      • Columnist

        November 14th 2017 @ 11:51pm
        Michael Lamonato said | November 14th 2017 @ 11:51pm | ! Report

        Absolutely right, safety has to come first. Argentina’s certainly on the list. I’d put my money on that, I suspect. I think they’ve been sizing up a track there to replace Brazil regardless of the violence anyway given the economic situation facing Interlagos.

        • November 15th 2017 @ 3:43am
          steve said | November 15th 2017 @ 3:43am | ! Report

          Agree, I was thinking of Argentina when I responded, I cant think of another South American country that would, or could host an F1. I have been hearing of such instances with team members being robbed at gunpoint for quite a number of years. Its almost to the point where F1 and or the teams themselves are going to have to take security seriously and provide their own armed escorts for all team employees. It would be a shame to see Interlagos fall off the calendar, but there is a serious problem here.

    • Roar Guru

      November 14th 2017 @ 8:55pm
      Jawad Yaqub said | November 14th 2017 @ 8:55pm | ! Report

      Such a shame considering how passionate the Brazilian fans are for the sport. Always there will be the few who tarnish it for the rest, though regardless of all of that – safety of all stakeholders is paramount at an event of this magnitude. Of course this latest series of incidents does little to favour the Brazilian Grand Prix’s future in F1.

      Considering too, the anecdotes I have been told about Mexico City too in general and not for the F1, I am pleasantly surprised that what happened in Brazil hasn’t happened there.

      In the end, the sport weren’t afraid to walk away from Bahrain due to threats in 2011 – so even if the severity is less than that of Bahrain, they still ought to take it quite seriously.

      • Columnist

        November 14th 2017 @ 11:57pm
        Michael Lamonato said | November 14th 2017 @ 11:57pm | ! Report

        To be honest, it seems to be to be significantly worse than Bahrain. Obviously the Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled at the height of the Arab Spring and civil unrest remained ongoing in subsequent years, but F1 never really became a target. There was one incident involving a Force India car, but even that — while obviously extremely serious — seemed more incidental, although I hasten to add that I wasn’t at that race and I’m no expert on the situation.

        Formula One in Brazil, on the other hand, is obviously being targeted — by a minority, as you say, but the country and city are clearly large enough that the police are unable to guarantee safety. It happens at least once a year. No other workplace would subject a workforce to a proven dangerous situation.

    • Roar Rookie

      November 14th 2017 @ 11:49pm
      Adam Heap said | November 14th 2017 @ 11:49pm | ! Report

      It would be a real shame for Brazil to lose such a historic and interesting GP – when it rains there’s few tracks that rival it for interest. If this keeps happening, however, and staff and fans alike are both in danger, then the owners need to recognise that and choose a better location. There are plenty of circuits and countries desparate for an F1 race.

      • Columnist

        November 15th 2017 @ 12:00am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 15th 2017 @ 12:00am | ! Report

        It would be a shame, definitely. The history of the circuit alone is a valuable connection for F1 before even considering some of the iconic drivers to have come from the country and even Sao Paulo itself. But if the situation is escalating, which it certainly seems to be, then sentiment can never outweigh safety.

        After all, we’re introducing the halo next year on the cars to mitigate against a tiny percentage of risk — how can we justify taking the sport somewhere where these sorts of incidents happen every year, seemingly a 100 per cent strike rate? Of course it could always return to the calendar down the track, but so long as it remains so dangerous, F1 must seriously consider leaving it off the calendar.

    • Roar Guru

      November 15th 2017 @ 9:42am
      Bayden Westerweller said | November 15th 2017 @ 9:42am | ! Report

      Surely removing the circuit from the calendar would be sufficient for the promoters to realise the measures they need to install and how much they’re missing out on, upon which returning it to the roster can be considered. Bernie Ecclestone would certainly like to snap up the rights at a bargain price!

      These mooted paddock upgrades should also be prioritised if the circuit has a long-term future on the calendar.

    • Roar Pro

      November 21st 2017 @ 12:13am
      anon said | November 21st 2017 @ 12:13am | ! Report

      Lewis better leave the diamonds and chains in his suite’s safety deposit box next year….

      It’s one of my favourite tracks. Hopefully they can find a solutions for the security and financial issues faced by the track.

      Interlagos is for real fans. Tracks like Abu Dhabi for event goers and campaigners.

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