F1's Brazil Problem

F1 teams are routinely robbed at gunpoint at Interlagos. Why does the series look the other way?

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Too many years have passed for me to recall its name. The tiny fishing area, set within a children’s park in San Jose, cost my parents a nominal sum for me to join other kids of kindergarten age so we could catch and release fish in chest-high wooden barrels.

It served as an early lesson on how to deal with the delight of catching fish and, moments later, process the sadness of the situation for those same damn fish. Stuck and hungry in a confined area, surrounded by a half-dozen boys and girls dangling food in the water for our predatory amusement, my little bleeding heart quickly lost interest in the experience.

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Those pre-pubescent memories popped up over the weekend when the latest wave of armed robberies outside Sao Paulo’s Interlagos circuit were reported. More took place after Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix as members of F1’s traveling show played the unwilling roles of comparatively wealthy prey.

With the track’s entry and exit for teams and the support network behind F1—everyone from reporters to tire technicians—acting as the barrel, bandits have learned to track those who come and go from the circuit and pick off the ones who look most vulnerable. The Interlagos robbery incidents, new and old, have become part of the event. For armed thieves, the November race is a feast.

Set next to a massively impoverished favela, F1’s flashy annual visit to Interlagos creates a bizarre interaction between local struggles and temporary displays of opulence at the 15-turn road course. For those who fly in for the week to do their jobs, it’s a high-stress trip where one or more from the racing community are all but guaranteed to face a choice between life or retaining material possessions.

Having been on the wrong end of a gun during his time covering F1 at Interlagos, NBCSN’s Will Buxton was filled with compassion and criticism following Sunday’s race.

“The first thing to make clear is Brazil exists in a state of immense inequality, and there’s no better example than the favelas that surround Interlagos,” he told RoadandTrack.com. “You’ve got this Billionaire’s Playtime going on in the middle of abject poverty. It’s not as bad, the poverty, as I’ve seen in India when Formula 1 raced there, but I also never had a gun pulled on me there.

“Mine happened in Brazil while on the motorway, outside the Interlagos track, where somebody came up on a motorbike, stopped it in front of my car, came to my window, pointed it at my head, and I thought it was all over. It’s a shame because for a country as beautiful as Brazil, it’s also part of the experience. I don’t want for [F1] people to fear Brazil, but we’re put in harm’s way every year.

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“It’s unlikely it will happen to you, but unfortunately, whether you’re Jenson Button two years ago or members of the Mercedes team, or from Pirelli, it’s the only race on the calendar each year where you know it will happen. And it has been this way for long enough.”

Hiring armed security forces to escort teams to and from the circuit has been standard fare, yet the robberies continue. Local police also act as a deterrent, but only to a certain point.

“You’re just on normal roads going into the circuit,” Buxton continued. “There are police once you cross the river into the favelas, but by the time you leave for the day, it’s late and the police have pretty much gone. The ones leaving late, it’s mechanics, engineers, marketing staff, caterers; it’s not the high rollers, and they’re sitting targets.”

For the wealthiest in F1, travel to Interlagos is done via helicopter. Other than reading about the armed thefts the next day, Buxton wonders if the sport’s ruling class has a proper grasp of the situation.

“I don’t think it should ever be an accepted part of what you do,” he said. “It’s not an endemic problem just for us. It’s also something people in the city have to deal with every day. I don’t think the question should be ‘what can the sport do to solve these problems?’ It should be ‘why are we going there at all when [F1’s] people are regularly put in dangerous scenarios?’

“Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome. This is what we have with Interlagos.

“We all love the track, the fans, and so much about Brazil, but not when you’re terrified that someone will point a gun at your head simply because you’re there. It keeps happening, and for too long it’s been pushed away, hidden by [former F1 boss] Bernie [Ecclestone], who joked on the grid to me that it wasn’t robbers with Jenson; they were just trying to sell him a cap... It’s been swept under the carpet for too long.”

Will Liberty Media, F1’s new rights holders, continue to roll the dice with the lives of hundreds who comprise its Interlagos paddock? And should any racing series require military-grade safety measures to provide entertainment?

“This is the worst year I’ve known it,” Buxton said. “Multiple teams and groups held up. How long does it need to go on before something really bad happens? Some real questions need to be asked how much longer this should go on.

“The saddest thing is no one wants to leave racing at Interlagos. There’s a bigger issue in the socioeconomic situation that has to be improved and Formula 1 cannot fix the problem for an entire nation. Some honest answers need to be provided on what’s most important to us before a return is considered.”

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