Will Camel come back to F1?

IN a world in which tobacco companies are being slowly driven out of all forms of advertising, the Formula 1 world provides a refuge. At least for the next five years Grand Prix racing is open to cigarette money in the majority of countries visited, following the collapse of Paneuropean legislation aimed at stopping all tobacco advertising in the European Union. The FIA President Max Mosley has said that if the World Health Organisation comes up with its planned international treaty then the federation will be happy to introduce a worldwide ban on tobacco advertising. Until then however Formula 1 teams will continue their relationships with the big tobacco firms.

Camel is now tipped to be in discussion about a return to Formula 1 with Alain Prost. If the Frenchman can convince Camel then his cars will run in the yellow colors between 2002 and the end of 2006.

Camel was involved in Formula 1 between 1987 and 1993. At the time the Camel brand was owned by RJR Nabisco. The program was a big success and the only reason it was axed was because of the company's debts resulting from a $35bn leveraged buyout of the company by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. in 1988. When Mike Harper took over as chief executive he decided to speed up the debt repayment and began a major cost-cutting campaign. Formula 1 was one of the victims. Harper's plan was also to build up the international tobacco businesses belonging to RJR Nabisco with the intention of selling them off at a later date. In March 1999 that policy reached fruition when the firm agreed an $8bn deal with Japan Tobacco. The Japanese company thus became the world's third largest tobacco firm behind Philip Morris and British American Tobacco and acquired the rights to sell Camel and Winston cigarettes all over the world.

For the last seven seasons Japan Tobacco has been involved in Grand Prix racing with its Mild Seven brand being the title sponsor of the Benetton team. This marketing program was aimed, fundamentally, at the Asian markets where Mild Seven is a big seller. It achieved very little in Europe.

In recent years Japan Tobacco has been having second thoughts and came close to a deal with the abortive Honda Racing Developments team. After that fell apart Mild Seven concluded that it would stay with Benetton. The takeover of the team by Renault means, however, that the deal must come to an end at the end of this year as Renault intends to run its cars in its own yellow liveries.

With the Mild Seven sponsorship coming to a close, Japan Tobacco seems to have concluded that the best step is to switch brands and make more use of Grand Prix racing in the five remaining years in which tobacco sponsorship is allowed. This means that the company must find a new team and with most of the majors either already sponsored by a cigarette company or in long-term deals with non-tobacco sponsors, the choice is limited to Prost, Minardi and, perhaps, Sauber.

Prost makes the most sense as he was sponsored by Camel when he won the World Championship for Williams in 1993 and is popular amongst the RJR International management, which is largely unchanged since the Japanese takeover of the company.

Prost has been worrying about the team's poor performance at the first two races of the year because of the good showing in the pre-season testing. Prost insists that the testing times recorded were real and not a publicity stunt and his engineers are puzzling over why the car was proved to be so difficult in Melbourne and Malaysia.

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