GLOBETROTTER

Globetrotter

When Laurent Kabila's troops marched into Kinshasa the other day to complete the destruction of President Mobutu's insanely-corrupt regime in Zaire, a small army of foreign correspondents invaded the grounds of the British Embassy to ask whether new Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour government would recognize the new Republic of the Congo which Kabila had declared.

"Good Lord," said a diplomatic flunky. "We cannot tell you that. The Foreign Office cannot possibly decide such a thing - it's a Sunday."

Some things do not change. Voting in a new government may seem a great and grand gesture but the reality is that the Civil Service will still plod along at its normal pedestrian pace. Things will change but, you know old boy, these things take time. The Labour party in Britain feels the need, after an eternity out of power, to make its mark and is playing to the peanut gallery with issues which will make people feel good about the new government: banning hand guns, fox-hunting and outlawing landmines.

One of these "feel-good" policies is to ban tobacco sponsorship in sport in Britain. The attitude will also, probably, swing the balance of power in the European community in favor of a Pan-European ban. It is a worthy gesture. Doctors like it, professional protesters like it, idealists are getting seriously hot under their biodegradable collars. I think it is scandalous.

I am not arguing that tobacco is good for you. Clearly it is not. But if it is bad for you governments should ban the product. The hypocrisy of banning the advertising while allowing a product to be sold is as disgusting as allowing child molesters to sing in church choirs because they have good voices. The tobacco industry could, of course, take the governments to the international courts and I am sure they would have a case. Last year a Canadian court ruled that the Tobacco Products Control Act - which banned tobacco advertising - violated the concept of free speech, which assuredly it did.

Tobacco companies do not want to get into such conflicts. They want to make love not war. Well, actually they want to make money but that is best done by smooching governments rather than fighting them.

Politicians know that the policies they have adopted are absurd but being pragmatic they know that to do the right thing and ban tobacco altogether would be far too radical a step for any government to consider.

For a start such a policy would alienate a significant percentage of the electorate - a lot of people still smoke. It would wipe out enormous amounts of money governments get by taxing tobacco products. They cannot afford to lose that money because it would mean increasing taxes to replace the missing money. A ban would also prove to be expensive as there would, inevitably, be a huge business in tobacco smuggling which would need to be policed. The Americans tried to naive policy of Prohibition in the 1920s and it resulted in an extraordinary growth for organized crime.

If one accepts that one cannot ban the use of tobacco, one must accept that advertising has to be allowed. Governments have no right to adopt a moralistic attitude if they do not have the temerity to do what should be done. They should encourage voluntary agreements with cigarette companies, a policy which has worked effectively in a number of countries for many years.

The other option - which is fine by me - is to allow tobacco advertising but increase the taxation on tobacco products in a dramatic way. This would increase tax revenues so that they could then waste more money on inefficient public services and new missiles. Such a policy would reduce the number of smokers because it would provide a powerful incentive for people to save money. It would also make it more difficult for youngsters to afford to take up the habit. This would upset the smokers and would lose a few votes but it would be the most reasonable way of doing business.

The trouble is that in parliament there are not many people around who will dare to do what they should be doing instead of what they think people want them to do. It is so much easier to fudge the issues.

Everyone is making a fuss about the effect of a tobacco ban on Formula 1 but I reckon it is irrelevant. Short of banning Grand Prix races - which they would never get away with - governments cannot stop broadcast images from other countries where there are no tobacco bans being beamed onto their TV screens.

F1 racing will not even need to abandon Europe as the biggest tobacco sponsors can simply leave the color schemes as they are and change the wording on the cars. A Rothmans car could have Rhubarb written on the side and most of the population would not notice the difference. This theory was proved recently by a rally team which ran 555 sponsorship. The 555 logos were replaced by a pattern of bananas and the cars carried a small message from a local banana company.

With the level of coverage enjoyed by F1, replacing the tobacco money will not be hard. The real damage will be done to other sports which do not enjoy the same levels of exposure and to the junior motor racing formulae, in which the best young drivers are usually supported through their careers by cigarette companies. There is scarcely a driver in Grand Prix racing who does not have a cigarette company to thank for help in the lower levels or in his early days in F1: Jacques Villeneuve would be nowhere without Players; Damon Hill had help from Camel and Barclay; Camel played a vital role in the careers of Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jean Alesi, Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine. Marlboro has backed so many drivers that it is sometimes hard to find a man who has never worn a Marlboro chevron. Olivier Panis came along with help from Gitanes and Ukyo Katayama would have no career but for Japan Tobacco. And so it goes on...

In fact the power of the tobacco companies in the sport is weakening as the teams get more money from elsewhere - notably the TV rights. When F1 is floated and there is an entire organization looking at ways to make more money, rather than Bernie running the whole show that income will increase.

Some teams say that the sport cannot be floated but what are they going to do to stop it happening? Stop racing F1? That is not an option unless they wish to half their income overnight. In the end they will settle or sell. Whether they like it or not, whether they think it is right or not, Bernie Ecclestone's Formula 1 Holdings company controls most of the commercial aspects of Grand Prix racing. They could have stopped Bernie taking over years ago but were too busy filling their own pockets to care.

Ecclestone has secured the commercial rights to the sport from the international automobile federation for the next 15 years - and it may be extended to 25 years shortly - and the aim is for the New York-based Salomon Brothers investment bank to offer shares in the company within the next two months with Ecclestone expected to keep 30% of the business, with the teams getting 10%, the FIA 10% and the general public 50% of the equity.

The intended board of directors of Formula 1 PLC is an impressive one with Ecclestone continuing to run the business as chief executive with former Mercedes-Benz chairman Helmut Werner becoming chairman, former Ferrari sporting director Marco Piccinini - a Monaco-based banker - as deputy chief-executive and David Wilson, an executive with the Ladbroke Group, becoming financial director. Non-executive directors will include Walter Thoma of Philip Morris (which owns Marlboro). Names such as these should give financial institutions the confidence to invest in F1 as a commercial enterprise, rather than as a volatile sport. The business is no different really from any other. It puts on a show - and a very good one.

The question which everyone in the business is asking is whether or not a flotation is a good idea. It certainly is for Bernie Ecclestone - who stands to gain as much as $3bn from the sale of 70% of his company. This will make Bernie one of the richest men in Britain. He is 66 and although many F1 bosses think they could run the show as well as he does there is no obvious replacement for him. Going public means that when a replacement is needed the sport will have the stability to continue without dissolving into the kind of puerile bickering which F1 bosses do so well.

A flotation will help to raise the sport from the entrepreneurial level - in which Bernie has excelled in recent years - to a new corporate structure. There are still plenty of areas in which the sport can be developed but these need stability for the growth to be possible. The sport has only just begun to merchandise the "Formula 1" brand and one can expect enormous growth in the years ahead from selling memorabilia, F1 clothing and other merchandise and from establishing shops, restaurants and other similar ideas. Who knows? One day we may have F1 theme parks and hotels as well. And if that sounds far-fetched, one should remember that Walt Disney started out drawing cartoons of a mouse and a duck. His company has become one of the world's biggest entertainment company worth billions of dollars. If one had bought stock in Disney in the early 1950s one would be very rich now.

If you want my opinion, take a risk and buy as many shares as you can afford in F1. I know I am going to...

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