Hamil­ton’s hor­ror

Mercedes team robbed at gun­point – then cham­pion crashes and starts at back of grid

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Oliver Brown in Sao Paulo

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

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