Honda website
Honda website

JULY 29, 2005

Knowing when to retire

The history of Formula 1 is dotted with cases of people not knowing when to retire. That goes for drivers, team principals, officials, journalists and now it seems that tobacco companies as well do not wish to go gracefully. There is much chuntering this weekend in Hungary about the "new" anti-tobacco laws in Britain and Europe not being clear and discussion as to whether or not the sport can go on being a billboard for the tobacco industry. There is nothing new about these laws. Everything has been set since February 2003, more than two years ago.

So what part of "No" is so difficult to understand? Laws are laws and if teams and tobacco barons want to test them they are entitled to do so but it is a risk that they could end up going to jail or being heavily fined. The European laws are somewhat lax perhaps but they are largely irrelevant because the British government's Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act of 2002 and its transitional provisions cover the whole world, at least when it comes to British-based companies. And as most of F1 is based in Britain, including the company that negotiates the TV deals, so they either must obey British law or set up shop in a place where the laws are different. And as none of the people involved have seen fit to take that opportunity to relocate, it is fair to say that they like to be based in Britain and thus must obey the laws of the land.

Hoping for last-minute help from the politicians is a waste of time because the suited wunderkinds of Westminster have more important things to worry about and do not need to stir up trouble. Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, will remember back to 1997 to his first proper scandal when it was suggested that a contribution to party funds from F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone swayed the government's attitude towards tobacco advertising. Eight years on and Blair is a great deal less popular than he used to be and reviving old pain does not seem a logical thing to do. And as his ministers will not survive long if they show too much independence, we should not expect any action from them.

Tobacco has had a good run with F1 and the sport has much to say thank you for but it was always a commercial transaction and the time has come for the sport to move on and find sponsorship from elsewhere. There are a lot of companies out there who would like to be in F1 but do not like the fact that F1 is associated with tobacco. Get rid of tobacco and there will be all kinds of new sponsors, mainly kid-friendly companies, that can see the value of F1 to their businesses. And that in turn could help create a new generation of fans as F1's demographics are currently not very promising. It needs more youngsters. Holding on to tobacco by whatever means possible may help some of the teams out of their short-term inability to find new cash but it does the sport no good at all. And if they cannot find new cash, teams probably need better marketing people because F1 is still an amazingly good way to promote products (as the tobacco barons recognised all those years ago).

Formula 1 folk are always banging on about cost-cutting but it has long been established that if money exists, F1 teams will spend it and so a tightening of the money supply - if indeed this actually proves to be the case - is probably not such a bad thing. Negotiations over cost-cutting will be much easier if all the teams are short of cash. It will not come to that. F1 produces vast sums of money which have nothing to do with tobacco and the only problem is ultimately that the redistribution of that cash is a source of contention. F1 needs a commercial settlement above all else and then teams can get on with going racing and putting on a good show. The need for money is an incentive to get deals done.

The tobacco industry has done well from F1 - with 37 years of constant advertising - so let us not pretend that either side owes the other a favour. It is time to goodbye and thank you and part with grace.