The 80-year-old Formula One ringmaster also appeared to imply that Button may have had himself to blame, for being slow and “not too bright”.
Button arrived at the paddock in a black Hyundai Sonata on Sunday morning. Gone was the B-Class Mercedes, “absolutely wrecked” after the world champion’s dramatic escape the previous evening. And as the paddock reacted to his getaway, further stories began to emerge. A group of Sauber engineers had been held up by a shanty-town gang, perhaps the same one that tried to rob Button, just an hour later and on the same stretch of the notorious Avenida Interlagos.
- Some photographers had cameras worth £65,000 stolen at gunpoint.
Virgin Racing’s Lucas di Grassi, who hails from Sao Paulo, was forced to admit that he had had an expensive watch forcibly removed from his person just last month. “A guy walked up to the car, tapped a gun in his belt and I handed over the watch,” Di Grassi said matter-of-factly.
Inevitably, Ecclestone was consulted. Would he be demanding additional security from the Brazilian government? Was the race now in jeopardy?
“I have been coming here for over 40 years,” Ecclestone said dismissively. “I have walked around, driven, been out in restaurants in the city and never seen or heard anything threatening. I’m as safe here as anywhere in the world. How many of these incidents get reported to the police? Very few.”
Strangely, Ecclestone then appeared to have a dig at Button, who, along with his trainer Mike Collier, had been wearing McLaren kit in the car, although the Mercedes had tinted, bullet-proof windows.
“I think they look for victims who are not too bright,” Ecclestone said. “All the people who have been robbed seem to be people outside the top 10 of the grid. Maybe that’s what they target, I don’t know.”
Button, whose chances of defending his world title ended in Brazil on Sunday, had qualified in 11th place for the grand prix.
Ecclestone’s coolness split the F1 fraternity. Di Grassi conceded that Sao Paulo was “dangerous”, although he added that things had improved greatly in recent years. Rubens Barrichello, another son of the city, said he was “ashamed” about what had happened to Button, but inisted that “too much fuss” was being made of the incident. “I’ve lived here all my life and never had any problems,” he said.
However, Sir Jackie Stewart, for whom driver safety has always been to the fore, admitted he had less faith than Barrichello in the city’s safety. “Everyone knows security issues like the one Jenson was exposed to are a fact of life out here,” said the three-time world champion. “I have very heavy security, I always have had here. I have armed security and two or three cars with me. One in front and sometimes one behind too. My car is bullet-proof and bomb-proof.”
Stewart raised the possibility that Button might have been the target of an attempted kidnapping rather than a simple robbery. “Part of the danger is the risk of kidnap and there are rumours here that it’s linked to the drug trade,” he said. “But drug barons don’t kill people unless it’s out of spite. They kidnap them because they are linked to rich multinational companies. In Jenson’s case that means Vodafone and Mobil. Jenson was lucky he had a good driver and security guard.’’
But Sewart added: “I really don’t think the race will be taken off the calendar because of this.” That, at least was something that Ecclestone agreed with. “Who is suggesting that we should not race here?” he asked.“Certainly not me. We have raced here for years, most people have no trouble if they are sensible.”