Remember when; motor sport was introduced to tobacco?
All the nice girls … love a sailor …
 By Ken Davies

Masters Historic Racing - Brands Hatch 2012 (Image: Peter Baker)
I must admit to a curious obsession for unearthing motor sport anniversaries, usually in five- or ten-year increments and I wouldn’t be surprised if 2013 didn’t immediately feature on most people’s radar as a milestone year. However, it actually registers 45 years since an event that changed the complexion of global motor sport for ever; the tobacco industry’s commercialisation of Formula One.

The popular perception is that this major breakthrough in securing revenue for motor racing was brokered by the imaginative and creative Colin Chapman. But, for the record, I believe someone else got there first, when the Gunston Cigarette Company placed its corporate logo on the cars of John Love and Sam Tingle at an earlier non-championship South African Grand Prix, held for a miscellany of F1 and F5000 cars at Kyalami.

That said, Chapman certainly holds the mantle of being the man who brought tobacco into the Formula One world championship, first testing the water of worldwide opinion in January 1968 at the Lady Wigram Trophy race, the third round of the popular New Zealand/Australia Tasman series in New Zealand. The arrival of Jim Clark’s Lotus 49T in the Wigram paddock was the culmination of several months of secret negotiations between the ever-controversial Chapman and tobacco manufacturer Imperial Tobacco. He sealed a three-year collaboration said to be worth £100,000, when the annual running costs of a formula one team were circa £90,000.

Chapman had anticipated the fierce ground-swell of opinion that his move, away from traditional British Racing Green in favour of an unfamiliar red, white and gold coloured scheme, initially framing an old sea dog’s bearded visage, would cause among the blue-blazered and grey-flannelled grandees of the motor racing establishment. At this juncture of the sixties, motor racing tradionalists believed that racing cars should be identified by their national racing colours; red for Italy, blue for France, silver for Germany and green for Great Britain, but Chapman was now prepared to disregard this hallowed tradition in the name of commercialism.

At first the track officials at Wigram refused to allow Clark’s Lotus out onto the circuit, but relented at the last minute when Chapman defiantly stood his ground, reasoning to himself that the organisers of this relatively minor race meeting were unlikely to disqualify one of their main crowd-pullers from the race and, true to form, Clark’s Lotus duly went on to win the race.

Allow me to digress from our main subject for a few paragraphs, gentle reader, as herein lays a certain sad irony associated with this part of my tale. Following the Tasman championship races in Australia and New Zealand, Jim Clark flew directly to Indianapolis to meet up with Colin Chapman and test the revolutionary gas-turbine, four-wheel-drive Lotus type 56, complete with Firestone tyres, at the Motor Speedway. Following a meaningful test session Clark’s packed itinerary showed him entered at an F2 race at Barcelona that weekend, followed by another at Hockenheim the weekend after. However, there was doubt over his participation at the German race as Ford team chief Alan Mann had offered him a drive in their new F3L prototype sports car for the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch.

As Clark and Lotus were aligned to FoMoCo he was contractually free to accept the drive and indeed keen to do so, but for some unaccountable reason, never received the crucial phone call from Mann, meaning that Deny Hulme drove the F3L at Brands and the Scottish legend reverted to plan and instead raced F2 at Hockenheim; the outcome comprehensively chronicled in the annals of Formula One history.

Back to the subject of this article and in Britain later in 1968, Lotus entered Clark’s 49 still bedecked in tobacco sponsorship decals, but this time driven by Graham Hill in the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. This provoked a far more powerful backlash, it did not come from the national sanctioning body, the Royal Automobile Club, but from a senior executive of ITV, the UK’s major commercial television station.

Evidently the ITV bigwig contacted Chapman during the second practice session and informed the Lotus chief that unless he removed the sailor’s head logo from his car, the broadcasting of the race would be cancelled and this time it was Chapman who relented, instructing his team to tape over the logo. In truth, he knew it made very little difference, given the poor quality of the television coverage the logo could hardly be seen on viewers’ primitive TV screens anyway! Despite ITV’s defiant but commercially driven stand on the issue, the events of Wigram and Brands Hatch had served to cast the die for the future funding of Formula One with, some say, the sport being corrupted by commercial considerations. However, the covetous eyes of F1 weren’t slow in spotting the tobacco industry’s enormous marketing budget, perhaps the most generous among the sport’s portfolio of target sponsors.  

By the first race of 1969, Gold Leaf Team Lotus appeared on the grid for the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami with the FIA’s official consent. At the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix another major sponsor arrived in the shape of Yardley, the perfumery division of British American Tobacco who, in exchange for a two-year contract reputed to be worth £50,000, painted Louis Stanley’s team of BRMs in its pinkish livery. The years that followed saw drivers’ overalls bedecked with a profusion of sponsors’ ‘patches’ and forming such a valuable billboard that the practice of placing the laurel wreath around the winner’s neck was stopped as it obscured these companies’ logos.

When Niki Lauda arrived at Ferrari in the mid-seventies, the explosion in sponsorship budgets meant that he was one of the first drivers to enjoy the fruits of this new revenue stream and, in addition to a reputed £163,000 retainer from Ferrari, Lauda increased his personal revenue by a further £379,000, a gargantuan sum in those days. Tobacco sponsors’ money now had the effect of influencing which team a top driver would join and even the Royal Automobile Club sold its soul for 30 pieces of silver, by agreeing to change the title of the British Grand Prix; a name the RAC owned, to the John Player Grand Prix, but by this juncture in my story the company pushing the sponsorship envelope was American giant Phillip Morris.

Alain Prost in the McLaren MP4 2B - Brands Hatch European GP 1985 (Image: Peter Collins)
Through its Marlboro brand the USA market-leader agreed a two-year sponsorship deal with BRM worth more than £100,000, plus win bonuses and funding for associated marketing projects. In order to extricate the maximum publicity value from this deal Marlboro flew 100 journalists on an all-expenses paid trip to its Geneva headquarters and then, on a chartered Air France jet, to the Circuit Paul Ricard. Here, the popular British F1 driver Peter Gethin, winner of the 1971 Italian Grand Prix, emerged from a giant mock-up of a Marlboro cigarette pack driving the new Marlboro BRM, an event that made front page coverage in many of the major European motoring magazines.

Throughout the seventies and eighties the tobacco leviathan moved inexorably through motor sport, providing the main source of funding for a great deal of teams until slowing down as the harmful effects of smoking were globally trumpeted by the growing anti-smoking lobby. Governments and various sporting authorities also started to set their own anti-smoking legislation. As a result cigarette and tobacco-related logos started to shrink in size and, following Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s lead, F1 teams became less dependent on tobacco money.

From then on the circuit signage and exposure displayed by the remaining tobacco-dependent teams became less and less prominent with the last team standing; Ferrari, finally dropping the subliminal white bar-coding on their red cars as late as 2010. This latter point is ironic in itself, as in the early seventies Scuderia Ferrari’s legendary team boss Enzo had looked down on the commercial sponsorship of racing cars with utmost distain, even rebuffing Marlboro’s high-level executive deputation when they visited Ferrari’s headquarters at Maranello in the hope of securing Il Commendatore’s signature on a lucrative sponsorship contract.  

So, since 1968 motorsport has successfully courted the prosperous international tobacco industry, turning weird titles on fag packets into household names, familiar even to confirmed non-smokers;  Silk Cut, Winston, Camel, Rothmans, Lucky Strike, Skol Bandits, Davidoff, Winfield, Pall Mall, John Player Specials, Mild Seven, Peter Stuyvesant, Dunhill, Perillys, Strand. But now, in common with the addictive nature of the products it was helping promote, F1 has been successfully weaned away from the weed after almost half a century!