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f1 in crisis

How Formula 1 Quit Smoking and Ruined its Health

The end of cigarette advertising has been disastrous for Formula 1.

by Jim Weeks
12 March 2015, 11:45am

Scuderia Ferrari

By the mid-nineties tobacco sponsorship had become synonymous with Formula 1. Of the top 10 drivers in the 1995 world championship, nine competed with the logos of cigarette brands on their cars. And their overalls. It's even possible that their underwear was emblazoned with the corporate colours of Marlboro, Rothmans, et al.

Two decades later the cigarette companies have all departed, forced out by a Europe-wide ban on their promotion. And there is a case to suggest that this has been extremely detrimental to the sport; at the very least, it's played havoc with its health.

I'm not going to dispute that banning tobacco advertising was, ethically speaking, a good thing. I hate heart disease and emphysema as much as the next person; tar-blackened lungs and neck growths like the guy in those graphic warnings aren't cool.

The legendary Lotus team were early pioneers of tobacco sponsorship. Photo via Wikipedia user Spurzem

And I know that tobacco advertising works. It may not necessarily start people smoking, but it certainly affects their choice of brand once they're hooked. I grew up watching racing in the nineties, so when I started smoking in my teens I tried Rothmans, Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut, all because they sponsored great-looking, successful racing cars. I picked up Gitanes in France and West in Germany. To this day it annoys me that I couldn't find a pack of Mild Seven, the Japanese brand whose logos covered Fernando Alonso's car when he won world titles in 2005 and '06. Even now, as a former smoker, I have an affection for those brands; motorsport embraced them once but has now had to kick the habit - just like me.

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It's not even to do with wanting those great liveries back. They were brilliant though; if only there was time to talk about all of them. The 1997 Jordan with the snake nose-cone, or its successor with a hornet motif. The red and white of Marlboro on the all-conquering McLaren-Hondas, the sky blue of Mild Seven, Lotus' iconic JPS black and gold, the Camel yellow on Mansell's title-winning Williams. I could go on and on.

Ayrton Senna won three world titles in Marlboro colours and is forever linked with the brand. Photo via Wikipedia user Morio

But ultimately this is all cosmetic, and if you want to argue on behalf of the tobacco lobby it's best not to shout about skin-deep beauty.

What cannot be disputed is that cigarette companies solved motorsport's biggest problem: paying for talented drivers to race. And when they went, that void was never filled. They took away the sport's fags without even thinking to leave them with an e-cig (though NiQuitin did briefly sponsor the Williams team).

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Formula 1 will understand that money is a vitally important factor in its existence. It is the lifeblood which Bernie Ecclestone drinks to stay alive; it is waved in huge wads at glamorous races like Monaco and Singapore; and it keeps the whole weird circus on the road nine months a year. F1 is an insanely expensive proposition: design and build a new state-of-the-art car every year, then tour it across the globe while constantly developing it in a frenzied arms race to become world champion. Then repeat. That isn't cheap.

Cigarette companies - evil life-sucking vampires with tobacco-stained fingers though they may be - helped to make this happen. They poured millions into the sport and asked only that teams added some stickers to their cars and entertained execs now and again. The teams were free to sign pretty much whichever driver they liked - which inevitably meant hiring the fastest guy available.

Marlboro paid insane money to lure Michael Schumacher to Ferrari, where he won five world titles. It was a smart way to spend the marketing budget. Photo via Scuderia Ferrari

Because all tobacco companies cared about was winning. They didn't care which driver stood on the podium so long as he was decked head to toe in their colours. And they had huge amounts of money to throw at this sort of sponsorship. By the mid-90s, Marlboro were sponsoring two of Formula 1's biggest teams in Ferrari and McLaren, as well as entrants in the World Rally Championship, motorcycle racing, American racing, and more. But it was all worth it. After all, Michael Schumacher won five world titles with a great big Marlboro logo on his car.

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A really simple illustration of how the departure of tobacco money has changed things is the former Jordan team, who had a long-time sponsorship deal with Benson & Hedges. Despite Jordan being a midfield team, the B&H cash allowed them to pay for whoever they felt like. So they got fast, established drivers like Damon Hill, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Giancarlo Fisichella and paid them to drive their cars. And, despite Jordan never being a top team, all three of those guys won races in the yellow cars. It kept the F1 grid healthy, even if the cash came from a bad place.

Funding from Benson & Hedges allowed the Jordan team to field talented drivers like Jarno Trulli (above). Photo via Wikipedia user Midgrid

These days, mid-pack teams must choose their drivers for commercial reasons. So Lotus have Pastor Maldonado, who brings money from a Venezuelan oil company, while Force India field Sergio Perez, whose cash comes from a group of Mexican businesses. They're both fast drivers, but they're also erratic and crash-prone. They wouldn't have landed seats at Jordan. Meanwhile, talented drivers with no money behind them are being forced away from F1.

And that isn't healthy for the sport any more than 40 Rothmans a day are for your internal organs. Yes, F1 has always had so-called 'pay drivers'. And it always will - that's fine. But when half the grid is paying to race you risk looking like a farce. This is meant to be the most elite motor racing championship on the planet - what are these so-so drivers with shit-tons of cash doing on the grid?

So it hurts F1's public perception, which hurts viewing figures, which means the existing sponsors pay less money to be involved. It's a vicious circle.

Jordan are now called Force India and field Sergio Perez. He's talented, but he's also got a lot of sponsorship which keeps him in F1. Photo via Sahara Force India

And speaking of sponsors, where are they all? McLaren are one of the biggest teams in the sport but they no longer have a title sponsor. At some teams, you can count the non-driver-linked sponsors on one hand. We were told that, when the fag brands left, a load of family-friendly companies would flood into the sport. Billion-dollar blue-chip brands like Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Adidas were all waiting eagerly for F1 to stub out the cigarettes, after which they'd get on board. But that hasn't happened. Big brands aren't entering F1 with any enthusiasm.

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And, partly because of this, the field is shrinking into non-existence. There are 10 teams left in F1, one of which is barely functioning after going into administration; another three are facing significant financial difficulties. All are fielding at least one pay driver,

Formula 1's problems are, undeniably, far greater than this; they warrant a series of articles, rather than a mere afterthought here. Perhaps you could go as far as to say that these problems have always existed and that cigarette money simply served to cover them up. Perhaps. But what's clear is this: since Formula 1 kicked the fags, its health has taken a severe turn for the worse.