Smoke and Mirrors: Tobacco Advertising in Formula One

Tobacco advertising in Formula 1 is once again back in the news with the World Health Organisation (WHO) pointing a nicotine-stained finger at Philip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco (BAT) for their recent branding initiatives in the sport. Stewart Longhurst takes a look back at how and where it all started – and whether it’s been all bad for the sport’s health.

Prior to the 1968 season, racing teams engaged in international motorsport, and F1 in particular, customarily painted their cars in the long-established competition colours of the nation where the team was based (rather than where the car was built). That meant blue for France, red for Italy, silver for Germany, dark green for Great Britain, and so on.  Whilst small brand decals for suppliers of oil, fuel, tyres and parts were often applied to the cars, they remained subordinate to the national racing colours.

Noting the success of non-automotive sponsorship liveries in the various United States racing series – and prompted by the withdrawal of support from some of their key supplier brands – the FIA allowed Formula One teams to unlock a rich source of funding by decorating their cars with commercial branding.

The first person to capitalise on this new sponsorship ruling was Rhodesian businessman and gentleman racer John Love.  Although dominant in the southern Africa motor racing scene, Love only graced the F1 World Championship stage once a year as a privateer entrant to the South African Grand Prix. In the 1967 race, Love finished in an amazing – and unexpected – second place having led the field with 19 laps to go before needing to stop for fuel.

On January 1st 1968, at Kyalami, John Love entered the Grand Prix under the Team Gunston banner, lining up in a Repco V8-powered Brabham BT20 painted in Gunston’s livery of orange with a gold-edged brown stripe. Love and the Gunston Cigarette Company of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) thereby initiated both commercial branding and a long and lucrative association between Formula One and the tobacco industry that survives to this day.

Love wasn’t as successful in this race as he was the previous year, managing only 9th place as the last of the classified finishers; over half of the field failed to finish the race through accidents and mechanical failures. This kind of outcome was commonplace back then but would be unthinkable today where only a handful of retirements is typical.

The winner was Jim Clark of Team Lotus, backed up by teammate and fellow countryman Graham Hill in second place with Austrian Jochen Rindt in third.  This was the last time that Lotus ran their cars painted in British Racing Green and, tragically, this was also to be Clark’s final F1 race.

After Clark’s death in a Hockenheim Formula Two race in April, and team replacement Mike Spence’s fatal crash in practice for the Indianapolis 500 in early May, Graham Hill was the sole entrant for Team Lotus in the next round of the F1 championship. This was the Spanish Grand Prix, held in Jarama just 5 days later.  Even team boss Colin Chapman, never the most sentimental of men, was too distraught to attend.

The dark green bodywork with its distinctive yellow stripe was gone: Hill’s Lotus 49 now sported a bright red fuselage with white underbelly separated by a gold stripe – the colours of Gold Leaf, one of Imperial Tobacco’s leading brands.  With this, Lotus became the first works team to wear a commercial sponsor livery and, once again, it was a tobacco brand.  Hill, despite being under enormous pressure and suffering from emotional strain, produced one of his greatest drives to win the race for Gold Leaf Team Lotus, going on to secure both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships for that year.

Running in Gold Leaf colours for another three years – and picking up another championship, the 1970 drivers’ honour won posthumously by Rindt – the team switched sponsorship to another of Imperial’s brands. The next 15 years saw the cars carrying the iconic black and gold livery of John Player Special (JPS).

The JPS Lotus also gave an F1 start to future champion Nigel Mansell. Despite being a hugely talented driver, Mansell suffered more retirements than any of his contemporaries and never bettered a third-place race finish.

It also gave another future champion his first successes, in this case the charismatic Ayrton Senna. Having stopped with an electrical fault in the first race of 1985, Senna dominated the following round at Estoril in Portugal, taking pole position, the fastest lap and the race win in the black and gold Lotus-Renault.  However, despite taking six more pole positions that season, he only won one more race, largely to technical faults. The pattern was set for the following year, which was the last season for the JPS colours. Nineteen seventy-four saw the start of another long-running and successful tobacco brand sponsorship, that of McLaren and Philip Morris International’s (PMI) Marlboro cigarettes with their distinctive red and white colour scheme.  Aside from Fittipaldi’s 1974 drivers’ championship – and the much-documented win for James Hunt in 1976 – the Marlboro McLaren didn’t achieve its legendary dominance until the mid-1980s. However, between 1984 and 1991 McLaren won six out of seven drivers’ championships with Niki Lauda taking one, and Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna taking three each.

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Despite its continued success with McLaren, Marlboro also had a low-level sponsorship deal with Scuderia Ferrari, displaying a small logo on the car’s air intake from 1983.  With McLaren’s fortunes waning in the light of the successful tobacco partnerships of Williams-Camel, Benetton-Mild Seven and Williams-Rothmans, PMI decided to switch its full support to Ferrari in 1996 having become the main sponsor of the Maranello team the year before.  It is perhaps a reasonable assumption that additional money from Marlboro helped in securing the talents of then two-time champion Michael Schumacher for Ferrari and also helped in developing the team towards its six-year dominance from the late nineties.

It is easy to see the appeal of F1 sponsorship for tobacco companies; the daring of the racers and the glamour of their VIP lifestyles with opportunities for event hospitality and other commercial tie-ups. Add a global TV audience that captures their brands in full-frame on a 200mph billboard every other week and Formula One becomes a very attractive marketing proposition.

Such was the draw of F1 for tobacco companies that prior to the 1998 season British American Tobacco (BAT) was persuaded to buy a majority stake in the ailing Tyrrell team, renaming it British American Racing (BAR) for 1999. Sending a clear signal to other teams that they meant business, BAR signed 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve from Williams to race alongside F1 debutant Ricardo Zonta.

BAT, having just acquired the Rothmans International business and collectively having several high-profile cigarette brands, thought they should capitalise on having two cars in each race and unveiled Villeneuve’s car in the red and white Lucky Strike livery. Zonta’s was decked out in the blue with yellow numbering of 555, a colour-scheme already made world-famous by Colin McRae and the Prodrive Subaru WRC cars.

The FIA, Formula One’s governing body, immediately responded. It said that its regulations required teams to run largely identical liveries on their cars. Despite challenging and appealing the ruling, BAR eventually compromised by combining the two liveries on either side of the cars with a large zip motif joining them up in the middle.  This was not to be the last time that creative design was used by teams with tobacco sponsors to find a way to work within the rules.

Facing a growing crisis over public health – at that time around half-a-million Europeans died each year from smoking-related illness – the European Union agreed to a gradual ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship to come into effect from 2001, with sports sponsorship outlawed by 2003.  Formula One argued that it was a global business and therefore not subject to European laws but national TV broadcasters did have to comply and there was a period of a few years when cars ran alternative liveries in an increasing number of races. The FIA announced that a worldwide ban would come into effect at the end of 2006.

Some teams simply left the spaces blank where tobacco brand names were usually displayed, letting the brand colours in the livery speak for themselves.  Others removed the brand names but left the brand logos.  (Quite how Williams got away with claiming that a silhouette of a camel wasn’t advertising, no one knows.)

McLaren, sponsored now by West, often wrote out the drivers’ names, Mika (Hakkinen), David (Coulthard) and Kimi (Raikkonen) in the brand typeface with the corresponding graphic device.  Coloured blocks, random words and team names were also used extensively in place of the tobacco brand but the most successful teams were probably those that used a play on words to communicate the brand of cigarette.

Notable for their creativity in this regard were the Jordan Grand Prix team and their primary sponsor Benson & Hedges. In one year, where the team mascot was a snake, the words “Bitten & Hisses” were substituted in tobacco banning countries.  Following years saw “Buzzin Hornets”, which gained a cult following, and “Bitten Heroes” which was used to tie up with the hornet and shark mascots respectively. The team eventually settled on the reductive form “BE ON EDGE” for the final few years of B&H sponsorship.

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In the seasons from 1968 to 2006, a tobacco-sponsored car won 28 out of 39 Formula One drivers’ titles, or nearly three-quarters of the championships that were up for grabs.  At the time of the ban the FIA estimated that tobacco sponsorship contributed in excess of $350m annually across F1 and WRC, which was a huge amount of money to lose.

While other teams parted ways with their wealthy but unhealthy partners in favour of banks, technology brands, and sponsored drivers, Marlboro saw an ongoing opportunity with a team that could legitimately continue to carry its colours.

From 2007 to 2010, Ferrari race cars sported a “barcode” of red or black vertical stripes on a white background in place of the Marlboro branding.  The historical association of the previous decade was enough to keep the Marlboro brand in fans’ minds and there was nothing to stop Marlboro from continuing to benefit from the partnership in other ways such as hospitality, events and driver appearances.  In a clever reversal of branding, they even put Ferrari race cars on their cigarette packaging, which was then covered by more lenient legislation.

In 2011, Scuderia Ferrari unveiled a new team logo to display on the sides of the upper bodywork.  It featured the prancing horse yellow shield on a diagonally dissected two-colour background of, you guessed it, red and white.

Although having continued to bankroll the Scuderia significantly but supposedly covertly for 12 years, Philip Morris International took the opportunity late on in the 2018 season to return to visibility on the Ferrari cars with their Mission Winnow branding.  According to PMI, Mission Winnow is a technology innovation partnership programme and doesn’t mention any direct link to its products.  However, PMI has registered Mission Winnow as a trademark for use in classes including batteries and technologies for e-cigarettes and other heated tobacco products.

Lining up for the 2019 season with McLaren, BAT has introduced a similar partnership initiative called “A better tomorrow” to innovate around what they call their “potentially reduced risk products”.

The recent pronouncement by the World Health Organisation (WHO) called on Formula One, along with all sports, to outlaw its participants from receiving sponsorship through tobacco companies regardless of what products, if any, they are promoting.  Jean Todt, the FIA president, said that international motorsport is fully aligned to the WHO and has prohibited tobacco sponsorship for many years – but neither the FIA nor F1 have, as yet, brought in any rules to forbid teams from partnerships with such companies.

For the 2019 season-opening Australian Grand Prix, such was the strict stance of the Victoria state government and the confusion over their legality that both Ferrari and McLaren raced without these “innovation partnership” logos.  At the time of writing both teams have reinstated these tie-ups for round two in Bahrain, with McLaren carrying BAT’s VYPE e-cigarette brand.

High technology motorsports like Formula 1 will continue to demand and devour huge resources to fund development and to pay for the services of the very best drivers, and teams might argue that they can’t always afford to be choosy about who they get their money from. And while it’s true that tobacco and alcohol products are easy to classify as unethical, it doesn’t take much of a stretch for an ‘evil-doers’ list to include petrochemicals, energy drinks, gambling, internet technologies, and international banking.

So, perhaps it’s time to turn full circle with just automotive supplier brands and car manufacturers supporting a field of what, with today’s teams, would be mostly British Racing Green painted cars? Now there’s an interesting thought…

Words: Stewart Longhust @SportsandGT

Photos: David G Steadman via Flickr

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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.