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Goodbye Spa?

THE Belgian government's insistence that tobacco advertising should be banned at the Belgian Grand Prix could lead to the disappearance of the event from the Formula 1 calendar next year. Belgian Health Minister Magda Aelvoet threatened legal action against any team displaying tobacco logos at Spa-Francorchamps last weekend and the tobacco companies decided to run without liveries for the weekend. It is unlikely that they will return next year as the ban means that the contract with Spa - which was due to run until the 2001 race - has been broken. The authorities in Belgium said that the maximum punishment for breaking the law would be a half million dollar fine or a year in prison.

When the Belgian parliament voted through the law in 1997, Bernie Ecclestone took the Grand Prix off the F1 calendar and it was not reinstated until the local government of Wallonia issued a decree exempting Grand Prix racing from the ban.

The Belgian law is odd in that it is even tougher than the European Union legislation which will see tobacco sponsorship phased out by 2006. Although it was created by the former Belgian government the recent elections in the country brought a new party to power and they do not want to be pushed around by F1. At the same time the regional elections resulted in major gains in wallonia for the ecologists and they are not going to fight the central government to defend a petrol-guzzling sport run in the Ardennes forests. The result is likely to be that the F1 teams will vote not to return to Spa - despite the fact that the circuit is the most popular on the F1 calendar. Ecclestone is unlikely to back down as being defeated by a small country over the tobacco issue will not do his credibility any good as he battles for bigger concessions from Europe.

If the Belgians do not back down we would expect the 2000 race to be cancelled and the most likely outcome is for the date to be given to Zandvoort for a Dutch Grand Prix. The circuit is now up to Formula 1 standard although one more run-off area needs to be completed for it to qualify for a full F1 racing licence. This work is expected to be completed within a matter of months. The track was the home of the Dutch Grand Prix between 1952 and 1985. It was rebuilt in the early 1990s but, as this was not a success, sections of the old track were restored and a completely new pit complex was built.

The circuit authorities have still to find the money for a race but with the availability of the end of August date this should not be a problem. There are no tobacco problems in Holland as the country is happy to abide by the agreement which is in place between the F1 authorities and the European Union.

One thing which might convince the Belgians to back down is the knowledge that the race could move to Holland. There has always been a healthy rivalry between the two countries and the prospect of the race moving to Holland may make the Belgians think again.

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