|Teams are always on the watch for attempted armed attacks on members leaving the circuit [AFP]
Jenson Button, the Formula One world champion, has escaped unhurt from an attempted armed attack outside the Brazilian Grand Prix circuit in the city of Sao Paulo, according to his McLaren team.
The Briton, who won his title in Brazil a year ago, was in traffic outside the Interlagos circuit when a group of men with guns targeted his car on Saturday night.
"We were going back from the track and were outside a shanty town and moving slowly on a busy road," Button told the British Mail on Sunday newspaper.
"I saw a dog come out, which was very cute. The next thing I saw was a man with a gun. I said 'Isn't that a gun?' and as soon as I said that, the driver angled the car and floored it.
"That's when we saw six men, all of them brandishing machine guns".
McLaren said in a statement that Button was quickly driven away from danger by an armed policeman trained in avoidance techniques who was at the wheel of the bulletproof Mercedes provided by the team.
Button's father, his manager and his physiotherapist were also in the car.
The attack happened on the same night that three engineers from the Sauber team were robbed just outside the Interlagos track, heightening security concerns in the country set to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"They had to stop at the red light and then all of a sudden five people were around the car, one with a machine gun, and they opened the door and took two rucksacks and disappeared. So nobody was injured," a spokesman said.
McLaren said the Sao Paulo authorities would be providing additional security to transfer the drivers and other senior team personnel to the circuit for Sunday's penultimate race of the season.
Teams are always on the watch for attempted armed attacks on members leaving the circuit after previous incidents over the years, despite a strong police presence.
Members of the Toyota team were ambushed at gunpoint four years ago as they left the circuit, with shots fired by a gang of youths who also tried to kick in their car windows. None suffered any injury.
Button had earlier qualified 11th on the starting grid, with his four title rivals well ahead of him and his hopes of retaining the title are likely to be extinguished on Sunday.
"Before, there was a sliver of hope of retaining the championship but now it's gone, it's basically impossible," he said.
The attack on Button pushed Saturday's surprising achievement by Nico Hulkenberg, a German rookie, down the agenda despite his feat in claiming a maiden pole for the Williams team ahead of all the title contenders.
Hulkenberg, 23, cut out to be the natural successor to seven-times champion Michael Schumacher, by manager Willi Weber, who handles both men, said he hoped his performance would help him keep his seat in the team for 2011.
He also said he may not have the pace to hold his position, but would try when the lights go out to start Sunday's 71-laps showdown - with the main threat to him likely to come from the duelling Red Bull pair of compatriots, Sebastian Vettel, also 23, and Webber, 34.
They start second and third on the grid with Lewis Hamilton - who claimed his title narrowly ahead of Felipe Massa in Brazil two years ago on the last lap - fourth and championship leading Ferrari driver two times champion Alonso fifth.