Government waves white flag over F1

Formula One’s governing body seems to have outmanoeuvred the anti-smoking lobby and persuaded the Government to perform a U-turn on tobacco sponsorship. Roger Baird looks at how they achieved their aim.

The Government’s crumbling position on Formula One tobacco sponsorship could reasonably be compared to that of the defenders of Jericho when Joshua appeared at their gates.

For F1’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), it is a case of one down and one to go – now that the UK has agreed to follow its line. Currently Germany, the Netherlands, and Greece oppose the all-encompassing ban on tobacco sponsorship: they want voluntary restrictions instead. But with the UK on its side, if the FIA manages to convert another major European Union member like Italy to its point of view, the directive would be blocked indefinitely.

Over the coming weeks, the FIA has arranged meetings with Chancellor Kohl and senior government officials in Italy and Portugal. The aim is to convince key nations to hold the line and to make new converts.

In public the British Government’s is not backtracking from health minister Tessa Jowell’s annoucement last Tuesday night, although there is now speculation that the Government will look for a ban to come into effect at the end of ten years.

However, Action on Smoking & Health (ASH), the anti-smoking pressure group, has little faith in such reports. One source says: “It will be impossible to get the Government to change its mind again on this. It will not do a U-turn on a U-turn.”

ASH believes that Formula One will be an exception to any Europe-wide ban. However, the Government has been put in a highly embarrassing situation by the revelation that the most powerful man in F1, Bernie Ecclestone, made a financial contribution, reported to be up to 1.5m, to Labour Party funds before the last election. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has said the sum, the size of which is disputed, will be paid back.

Max Mosley, president of the FIA, managed to change Blair’s mind about tobacco sponsorship when the pair met on October 16, by painting a nightmare scenario. He told Blair that a blanket European ban would force the sport to relocate to Asia and the Far East, which has very few restrictions on tobacco advertising.

That move would hurt the UK, the traditional home of motor racing, more than any other country in Europe. The McLaren, Benetton, and Jackie Stewart teams, as well as a host of ancillary services, are based in the South of England. The FIA claims that the UK motorsport industry employs 50,000 skilled workers – 5,000 of these directly involved in F1 – and has annual revenues of 900m. The body claims many of these jobs, and much of the money, would be lost to countries like India, Hong Kong, and Malaysia in the aftermath of a European ban.

The consequences Blair faced were stark: the responsibility for decimating a sport that Britain pioneered; the end of the British Grand Prix, a long-established fixture in the UK sporting calendar; and the loss of so many jobs and so much revenue. He was not prepared to shoulder that burden.

David Ward, the director general of the European office of the FIA, says that Blair recognised these were not empty threats.

Ward says: “Everybody says we are bluffing about this move, but we are not. China and South Korea will have a Grand Prix within two years. Indonesia and Malaysia want to take part, and South Africa has had a Grand Prix in the past and is keen to get it back. We really are struggling to keep the circuit down to a manageable level. There is no shortage of countries which want a Grand Prix.”

The FIA says that 70 per cent of its 450 million TV audience is in the Pacific Rim, despite the fact that two-thirds of the 17 races take place in Europe. It claims that it is talking to the F1 teams about expanding the circuit to between 18 and 20 races over the next two years. The new additions will come from outside Europe.

So far, the FIA and the tobacco industry have agreed only to remove tobacco advertising from drivers’ helmets and overalls. “This will remove any link between individual prowess and tobacco,” says Ward. The other concession is that perimeter advertising will carry health warnings.

Both the motorsport and the tobacco industry were caught unawares when Jowell announced the news. “Everyone I have talked to was surprised this happened so quickly,” says Brian Sims, an F1 sports agent at Alan Pascoe International – which acts as sponsorship agent for the Benetton Formula One team. “For the past year we have been working on the assumption that tobacco sponsorship would be banned. That is why we have been looking for other sponsors and have been able to bring in Gillette and Federal Express as alternatives to tobacco.”

The reaction from the teams was ecstatic. David Warren, marketing director of Benetton, which has Japanese tobacco brand Mild Seven as its main sponsor, says: “We have been well represented by our governing body. It has handled the situation very confidently until now and I have great faith in the way it will continue to act for us in the future.”

A spokesman for Gallaher – which is sponsoring the Jordan team with about 30m over five years through its Benson & Hedges brand – welcomed the decision, saying “commonsense had prevailed”.

However, Gallaher seems to accept that there will be increasing restrictions on its presence in the sport. “We are willing to sit down with the Government and the relevant bodies to discuss sensible proposals,” says the spokesman. “We understand there will need to be compromise.”

Recent reports have suggested that the Government may also pull back from its blanket ban on advertising and allow the industry to continue exploiting direct marketing. All Gallaher will say on that subject is that it continues to lobby against further restrictions on advertising.

The response from ASH is gloomy: it realises it has been outmanoeuvred. ASH has access to the Department of Health; but this policy emanates from the Prime Minister’s office.

ASH director Clive Bates says: “Once again the tobacco companies have used bully-boy tactics to force the Government to weaken its stance on smoking control. The tobacco companies will simply divert their huge marketing resources to F1, which will become inextricably linked with cigarettes.”

Recent reports leave it unclear whether the Government will in reality back away from an across-the-board ban. Whatever it decides, its credibility in this area has been damaged.

If Blair surprised his critics and decided to push through a blanket ban, it would be a blow for F1, but not a devastating one. What this affair has demonstrated beyond doubt is the FIA’s capacity for disturbing the delicate consensus about tobacco promotion in the UK. If it can repeat the performance with other European governments, tobacco sponsors will have little to fear.

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