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Gitanes Blondes - having more fun?

ONE of F1's most loyal sponsors - the French Societ? d'Exploitation Industrielle des Tabacs et Allumettes (SEITA), which owns the Gitanes cigarette brand - will shortly decide its future in Grand Prix racing. All the indications are that Gitanes will continue with the Ligier team, but there have been several important changes in recent months which might affect that decision.

The SEITA was privatized in February of this year and is no longer under the control of the French government. The government, too, has changed; and the link between ex-President Francois Mitterand and Ligier is over. In addition, the SEITA's Sponsorship and Communications Manager Henri Le Berre - who has been responsible for Gitanes's support of Ligier since the team entered F1 in 1976 - is retiring at the end of this year.

On the other hand, advertising restrictions around the world are such that F1 provides the best available promotional tool for cigarette companies, although not all the big tobacco companies are currently involved: RJR Nabisco, British American Tobacco and Korea Tobacco do not currently sponsor F1 cars, although Philip Morris (Marlboro) funds McLaren and Ferrari; Japan Tobacco (Mild Seven) sponsors Benetton and Tyrrell and Rothmans supports Williams. With the old markets being closed down, tobacco companies are looking to developing markets such as eastern Europe and the Far East, where F1 serves them well. The SEITA is the seventh largest tobacco company in the world but currently has only 1% of the world market and is looking to expand.

While Gitanes might pull out of the sport - to concentrate on other sponsorships in the arts, the theater and the cinema - it is more likely that the lure of the world markets will keep it interested in F1. The problem is that all the major F1 teams have long-term cigarette deals and there is little choice but to stay with Ligier. Of the teams without major deals, Jordan says it has had no contact with the SEITA and the performances of Sauber and Tyrrell are none too impressive.

Ligier is also facing a reduction in budget from Elf, which is under pressure to put all its money into Benetton to keep MichaelĘSchumacher with the team next year.

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