The Silent Return of Tobacco Sponsorship in F1

A few weeks ago, McLaren unveiled the new car livery for the 2021 season and whilst there was much discussion on social media about the similarities between the new design and that of last year, there have been some significant advances (click here to check the analysis of the new car). The Papaya cars are now powered by the Mercedes power unit, but another, more controversial, partnership has not been commented on by the FIA.

Written by Bruna Brito, Edited by Tanishka Vashee & Lewis Rundle

McLaren’s 2021 MCL35-M (credits mclaren.com)

Tobacco sponsors are some of the oldest and wealthiest commercial partners in Formula One. On 21 November 2001, the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile), the world governing body of motor racing, announced that “tobacco advertising and sponsorship by cigarette manufactures will be banned by the end of the 2006 season”.

According to the graphics created and reported by  “Exposed Tobacco. Org”, investments from tobacco companies made up almost a quarter of all F1 sponsorship in 2004 and 2005. This figure decreased drastically between 2006 and 2018 in the wake of the ban, but in 2019 it increased for the first time in almost a decade.

Despite the FIA’s strict ruling against tobacco advertisements, many have returned to occupy prominent areas on the cars.

Exposed Tobacco.org – shows a rising prevalence of Tobacco sponsorship in F1

McLaren’s partnership with British American Tobacco jumps straight through the FIA’s tobacco ban loophole. Since 2019, their cars have sported the inscription “A Better Tomorrow” on the side pods. This area is regarded as prime space reserved for main sponsors – and as such comes at a premium price. 

It was back in 1968 when Lotus painted the cars of Graham Hill and Jackie Oliver red and gold – the colours of the Gold Leaf cigarette pack. Even at the time, the action was frowned upon, with Lotus’ competitors accusing the team of “promoting” itself and being a sell-out for changing the colours of the car from traditional British Racing Green to that of Gold Leaf. However, Lotus’s move joined the tobacco industry and F1 at the hip perpetually.

The current relaxed attitude towards tobacco sponsorship is not limited to McLaren, and can not simply be put down to ‘forgetfulness’ by the FIA. Since 2007, Scuderia Ferrari have played chicken with the regulations. From that season until 2010, a barcode was placed across the car and on the driver’s helmets. The barcode was clearly a subliminal advertisement for Marlboro that at high speed would reveal its logo, but it took four seasons to ban. However, as we well know, the slogan “Mission Winnow” has become characteristic of the Italian team’s car, since 2019 and demonstrates the continued support from Marlboro.

Ferrari F10

Despite all the controversy, it is expected that the policy will be applied effectively, without any exceptions and any teams who are found to be involved, will face a suitable punishment. One can only hope that these advertisements or allusions to tobacco industries will not have any influence on the use and practice of its products.

After all, the image of the elite athlete has shifted somewhat from the days of James Hunt.

To read more about McLaren’s 2021 sponsors, click here. To read about Ferrari’s new engine plans, click here.

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