Where is Marlboro going?

MARLBORO may have pulled the plug on the McLaren team for 1997 - but the cigarette company says it plans to remain committed to Formula 1.

MARLBORO may have pulled the plug on the McLaren team for 1997 - but the cigarette company says it plans to remain committed to Formula 1. Everyone in Grand Prix racing is, therefore, asking the same question: What is Marlboro planning for 1997 and beyond?

It is fairly clear that Marlboro will continue to have a strong involvement with Ferrari - with more obvious badging on the car - but it is unlikely that we will ever see a Ferrari in full Marlboro colors. The mystique of Italian racing red is too powerful a force to consider replacing it with cigarette branding. We hear that Marlboro is not interested in even considering that option because of the potential backlash. If Marlboro is going to keep the same level of involvement, therefore, there will be a team running in full Marlboro livery next year.

In theory - and in the world of F1 contracts there is no such thing as impossible - Marlboro cannot join Williams next year because the team has a contract with Rothmans until the end of 1997. There might be a chance to race with Benetton although the team has a contract with Mild Seven. Benetton, however, wants more money because the Mild Seven deal is believed to be based on performance and this year's efforts have not been as successful as had been hoped - particularly when one considers that the team has been using the same engines as Williams.

If none of the top four teams are available - or Marlboro does not want to be involved with them - the middle-ranking teams offer Marlboro the chance to built up a new top-flight operation. This is what happened in 1980 when Marlboro was unhappy with the performance of the old McLaren Racing. The company's F1 experts picked out Ron Dennis as a man with ambition and forced McLaren Racing into a merger with Dennis's Project 4 Racing, thus creating McLaren International.

Eddie Jordan would like to think that Marlboro will back him and would probably be happy to ditch Benson & Hedges if Marlboro had more money available - which is quite likely. The Jordan team's results this year have been very poor which, according to Jordan, is not because of a lack of money. The implication is that Jordan still has a long way to go before it can challenge the top teams.

Jackie Stewart - with extensive financial and technical backing from the Ford Motor Company - is another possibility for a long-term Marlboro deal. It is unlikely that the team will be in a position to win races in 1997 but it will make an impact and there will be no shortage of coverage for the Stewart cars.

Tom Walkinshaw is another man who is certain to be sniffing around at Marlboro and he might be a good bet for Marlboro because his ambition to succeed in Grand Prix racing is intense and he has good facilities at the new TWR base at Leafield.