Mercedes team robbed at gunpoint – then champion crashes and starts at back of grid
On a torrid day for Mercedes, which began with the news that several team members had been robbed at gunpoint near Sao Paulo’s ramshackle Interlagos circuit, Lewis Hamilton marked his first competitive appearance since winning a fourth Formula One world title by crashing in the first two minutes of qualifying.
In an uncharacteristic misjudgment, Hamilton appeared to carry too much speed into turn six, a sweeping righthander, as his car lost grip at 160mph and slewed into the barriers. After a campaign distinguished by remorseless consistency, with nine victories and 11 pole positions, the quadruple champion made the rarest of lapses to relegate himself to the back of the grid for today’s Brazilian Grand Prix.
Hamilton was unharmed in the crash, which came just hours after a group of Mercedes staff were ambushed in a minibus on their way out of the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace at 10pm on Friday. Items “very valuable” to the team were stolen, they confirmed, while Hamilton claimed that shots were fired and one victim had a gun held to his head.
This race has become notorious for off-track trouble, with Jenson Button escaping a similar attempted robbery in 2010, and Hamilton acknowledged that the latest incident had left several Mercedes workers “shaken”.
He also urged more concerted action within the sport to protect F1’s travelling band in this vast, sprawling city, long plagued by gangland violence. The road into the circuit has become particularly dangerous, with an Interlagos favela district along one side and F1 visitors urged not to wear their accreditation passes lest they be targeted. Liberty Media, the sport’s owners, failed to issue any statement about the controversy.
Matteo Bonciani, the FIA’s commu- nications director, had been travelling directly behind the minibus, in one of the governing body’s cars, when the assault took place. “Three men hit the car windows with their weapons,” he said. “But the driver was spectacular and reacted with professionalism and cold blood. I’ve been coming here since 2002 with Ferrari, and I always knew about these things. But it is the first time it has happened to me.”
Another car containing Williams staff was also approached by a gunman but managed to leave the scene safely.
There was some solace for Mercedes as Valtteri Bottas secured the third pole of his career with a stunning final lap to squeeze out Sebastian Vettel on the front row. “I told them I was going to put it on pole and cheer everybody up,” the Finn said.
For Hamilton, it was a far less gratifying afternoon. Within seconds of the green light to start qualifying, he locked up and speared his car into the trackside advertising hoardings. Clearly shocked, he stayed in the cockpit for several minutes, eventually reassuring the Mercedes garage that he was unhurt.
Acknowledging his own error, Hamilton said: “It happened really quickly. I tend to look at these challenges as part of what makes life interesting. I just need to take whatever bubble of negativity comes from this and move forward. It’s very unusual from me, but it shows we are all human. I will try to have as much fun as possible in the race.”
Hamilton had looked poised to dominate here at Interlagos, having led in practice by a distance, but his usually faultless sense for a track’s line of least resistance deserted him yesterday. With the crumpled wreck of his Mercedes hauled away, he could lament the end of a particular streak, given this was the first time in 28 races that he had failed to advance beyond the first phase of qualifying.
It is a perhaps understandable feature of Hamilton’s career that once the title is wrapped up, his performances dip. When he followed his triumph in 2015 with a significant slump, as teammate Nico Rosberg won seven races in a row, many observers of his lifestyle attributed it to exuberant celebrations.
Hamilton has done plenty to toast his most recent glory, flying straight from Mexico to Miami for an extravagant after-party before climbing to the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru with some close friends.
He has been under more of a cloud this week, after he was named in the Paradise Papers leak for allegedly receiving a £3.3million tax rebate on his private jet.
But he has promised not to relent in the season’s final two races and harbours fond memories of Interlagos, having seized his maiden title here in 2008 for McLaren, at the expense of local hero Felipe Massa.
Walking away: Lewis Hamilton climbs from the wreckage of his Mercedes