JULY 21, 1997
Branson and Formula 1
BRITISH music and airline mogul Richard Branson said last week that his Virgin empire would be willing to fund a British Grand Prix free of tobacco sponsorship if F1 bosses decided not to visit Silverstone because of impending tobacco bans. Speaking at an anti-smoking conference in London, Branson said that if necessary he would provide a rival spectacle "worldwide" adding that his offer goes for any sport that claims it cannot survive without cigarette advertising. Branson said that the motor racing industry could do without tobacco sponsorship if drivers were paid a lot less money.
The naive outburst did not impress the F1 world which pointed out that Branson should stick to the businesses he understands. FIA President Max Mosley told the Financial Times in London that F1 was "an area about which Branson knows nothing. His record in areas where he knows nothing - as with cleaning up litter for Mrs. Thatcher - is not very good."
The most likely explanation for the outburst is that Branson has been put up to the comments by the teams who have yet to agree a deal with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone over the shares they might be allocated if F1 was floated. The teams seem to be worried that Ecclestone may simply abandon the float and sell parts of his company to tobacco-related companies. This would weaken the power of the teams as most rely on massive amounts of sponsorship from the cigarette industry.
There are only four teams which do not rely on tobacco money: Sauber, Stewart, Tyrrell and Arrows and of these Sauber is reliant on the Marlboro-backed Ferrari for its engine supply. The only team which says it is openly anti-tobacco is Stewart while Tyrrell and Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows both have long histories of involvement with tobacco companies.
Branson's comments are unlikely to amount to anything but are a sign that there are still very serious divisions between the teams and Ecclestone.
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