MEDLAND: Time to play hardball with Brazil

MEDLAND: Time to play hardball with Brazil

Formula 1

MEDLAND: Time to play hardball with Brazil

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A week ago I wrote about the issues still to be decided in Formula 1 that made the Brazilian Grand Prix worth following, despite both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships having now been settled.

From an on-track perspective, that of course overlooked the potential for Lewis Hamilton to crash on Saturday and deliver a stunning recovery drive on Sunday, even if the lack of any championship ramifications sucked some of the drama out it.

But as is often the case with F1, there were a number of topics that cropped up unexpectedly and made headlines in Interlagos – and largely for the wrong reasons.

Ahead of the weekend, Liberty Media announced its third quarter results attributed to the Formula One Group, which showed a small drop in revenue that could have a knock-on effect on the teams as it would mean less prize money next year. Team bosses admitted both publicly and privately they were not happy about it, but said they are willing to stomach the loss while the new owners try and steer the sport in a new direction.

Much more public was the row between Toro Rosso and Renault after Franz Tost snapped at Cyril Abiteboul’s suggestion that the team could be to blame for the numerous reliability issues it has been having. Tost’s team hit back with its own claim that Renault was deliberately hurting Toro Rosso’s chances of winning the battle for sixth in the constructors’ championship, but the accusations soon faded into insignificance due to incidents outside the sanctuary of the paddock.

The most severe of the weekend’s issues transcended the sport when members of the Mercedes team were robbed at gunpoint after leaving the circuit on Friday night. Valuable items such as wallets, watches, phones and passports – all the important stuff you’d have in a bag when working abroad – were taken, but fortunately nobody was hurt.

Initial reactions were overwhelmingly of concern, but tempered by the knowledge that such an incident can – and often does – occur in Sao Paulo during grand prix week. Jenson Button had been a high-profile target back in 2010, and other teams had suffered similar run-ins.

As it emerged that three separate attacks had taken place on Friday night, however, the concern grew. There was an added nervousness among the teams when leaving the circuit, and plans were changed to try and avoid any repeats on Saturday and Sunday nights. Unfortunately, Sauber on Saturday and Pirelli on Sunday were still targeted. For Pirelli and McLaren to then cancel this week’s tire test shows how little faith both parties had that they would be protected outside the track.

Personally, I didn’t feel any less safe than in previous years. Travel to the circuit from the hotel took place in daylight and with a strong police presence in place in the immediate vicinity of Interlagos. By nightfall, that presence had disappeared in the early part of the week, and seemed smaller despite the promise of all-night patrols later on, but as journalists either taking a taxi or Ubers with only one or two other people, our vehicle was always going to represent a small target compared to the more lucrative hit of a minibus full of F1 personnel.

What becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend is the regularity to the attacks last weekend, even after the promised increase in protection.

The answer could be a very political one.

All of these issues took place against a political backdrop where Sao Paulo’s mayor – Joao Doria – is keen to privatize the Interlagos circuit, with the initial approval to do so coming through last week. Doria said during the race weekend that privatization would help improve security around the circuit, but his plans and subsequent comments led to some Brazilian sources suggesting the timing of the attacks could therefore be more than coincidental. That theory was backed up by claims from a local policeman that the captain of the police was allowing some of the attacks to take place by impeding his own force – something the police said it will investigate.

Doria envisages the sale going through before next year’s race and wants to keep F1 at the venue under private ownership beyond the end of its current deal, which runs until 2020. If privatization does lead to improved security, then there can be a future for the Brazilian Grand Prix if it fits with Liberty Media’s vision for the sport. But if the claims that the attacks were deliberately not stopped turn out to be true, F1 should end its contract immediately.

This is a sport that travels to some volatile places at times; places where it can be impossible to avoid being used as a political tool. But usually, the focus is on ensuring safety for the participants. If it transpires that team members have been intentionally put in the firing line in order to further a political desire, there can be no acceptance from F1, regardless of the financial implications on the aforementioned Liberty revenues.

The FIA has now called on Formula 1 to collate reports on the various incidents in Sao Paulo in order for the World Motor Sport Council to analyze what happened and attempt to improve security at future events, which can only be a good thing. But the main focus needs to be on what led to the attacks at Interlagos.

These ongoing incidents should have acted as a reminder that all the paddock is doing when it travels the world is putting on a sporting event. It’s not a matter of life and death. It cannot afford to have its members – or, of course, fans – put at risk, and the sport now needs to decide whether it is convinced that this was a situation that will not happen again.

If it is, then trust can be rebuilt. If it isn’t, then Felipe Massa could have been saying goodbye to Interlagos for the whole of Formula 1 when he stood on the podium on Sunday night.

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