Formula One: Teams waiting for smoke to clear after tobacco ban

With all the talk about the fiasco at the U.S. Grand Prix last month, the threat of a breakaway series and the debate over new rules, a critical epoch-changing story has gone largely unnoticed in Formula One: Over the next few races the sport is entering into the last gasps of a nearly 40-year nicotine habit.

The foundation upon which the multibillion-dollar sport was built - after the Gold Leaf cigarette brand became its first tobacco sponsor, with the Lotus team in 1968 - will start to crumble after July 31, when a European Union ban on tobacco sponsorship comes into effect.

Five of the 10 teams, including the top three, still have tobacco sponsors.But that number will shrink when the West tobacco brand, which sponsors the McLaren-Mercedes team, leaves the sport after the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim on Sunday, although its logo will be on the cars during practice in Hungary the following week.

Not yet ready to face the withdrawal symptoms, the remaining minority of tobacco teams nevertheless hope to keep on smoking outside Europe when the ban goes into effect the day after the Hungarian Grand Prix. But even that depends on an interpretation of a British antitobacco law that also goes into effect on July 31, making things even more difficult for the three British-based teams.

"We are all really waiting to see, everyone's watching everybody else," said Neil England, commercial director for Gallaher Group, which sponsors the Jordan team with its Benson & Hedges and Sobranie cigarette brands.

When

the EU announced in 2002 that tobacco sponsorship would be outlawed from July 31, 2005, nearly a year and a half earlier than Formula One had expected, the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body, threatened that teams and races would leave Europe for Asia for at least half the 2005 season, and possibly all of 2006.

That has not happened, and Asian countries have signed the World Health Organization's antitobacco framework. But teams and tobacco companies are working behind the scenes to clarify the situation with the authorities, said England, who is also a member of the Formula One Commission, which works with the FIA on running the sport.

Of the five tobacco teams, only Jordan and BAR were willing to speak at length on the subject. Renault and McLaren refused to comment. Although Ferrari has said that it will continue to be sponsored by Marlboroeven beyond 2006, Luca Colajanni, the Ferrari spokesman, remained evasive.

"Our position is very simple, as usual we will respect the laws each country foresees regarding tobacco advertising," Colajanni said. "To know what will happen, the best thing you can do is to check the laws in each country and understand when the EU directive will be transformed into law."

On the other hand, as an Italian team Ferrari is not concerned with what is vexing the three British-based teams. In Britain, the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act also sets July 31, 2005, as the deadline for the end to tobacco sponsorship in "global events" like Formula One and World Snooker. But the way the law is written suggests that even if an event takes place in another country, if the logos are seen on television in Britain, the teams and sponsors may be prosecuted.

Although a response to a question in Parliament recently indicated that the law did not intend for Britain to dictate sponsorship for races in other countries, England said their lawyers were unsure of the value of that response.

"As a U.K.-based tobacco company, together with British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco, we are seeking clarity of the U.K. regulations in order to determine whether we are able to brand and thus able to continue in the sport," England said.

Tobacco companies inject around $300 million into the sport each season, but the cash is more important for some teams than others.

The Renault car manufacturer, for instance, requires the chassis side of its team, which is based in England, to be self-supporting, and Mild Seven tobacco is its title sponsor.

For the BAR team, on the other hand, because it is not just sponsored by but partly owned by the British American Tobacco company, the team is in a more stable situation in the short term, said Nick Fry, the team's chief executive.

"They'd keep the team afloat because they are 55 percent equity partners," Fry said, adding, however, that, "British American Tobacco have made absolutely clear for some time now that they would look in the long run to divest themselves of a Formula One team that they couldn't sponsor.

"They

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