Can it really be 19 years since Formula One made its first, tentative steps into the Eastern Bloc? The F1 circus first came to the Hungaroring in 1986, celebrating the spirit of glasnost that introduced the world’s most capitalistic sport into the Communist heartland of Hungary.
On that weekend the tiny Zakspeed team even celebrated by changing the ‘West’ tobacco branding on one of their cars to read ‘East’.
The motives behind Bernie Ecclestone’s desires to ‘go east’ were clear: replacement events were needed for venues like Zandvoort in the Netherlands, which held its last Grand Prix in 1985 when it became clear that the circuit owners could no longer afford Ecclestone’s considerable prices. No matter that the track was one of the best-loved on the calendar, or that the twisty, dusty Hungaroring that replaced it yielded such a slow average lap speed that races often nudged the two-hour mark and overtaking was nigh-on impossible.
Hungary had one crucial attraction, besides the mobile brothel that was still a regular feature until a few years ago: it was a circuit in a country where the teams could race in their full, tobacco-sponsored liveries. Since 1984 agreements had been made between the teams to run in ‘non-tobacco’ liveries in Great Britain and France, and it was considered likely that other Western European countries would shortly follow suit.
As a result a major theme in F1 history over the last two decades has been the growing international opposition to tobacco advertising. Ecclestone has made repeated attempts to evade this opposition by going to further and more exotic locations in the name of ‘globalising’ Formula One, but, in reality, to keep the tobacco cash safe. After Hungary came short-term returns to Mexico and South Africa, then permanent fixtures in Malaysia, Bahrain and China.
But with the arrival of the European Union’s legislation against tobacco advertising this weekend it may be that the game is finally up for the Formula One teams. Despite Ecclestone’s insistence that F1 can survive without Europe, too many of its teams and supporters are rooted in Europe to make a wholesale move to Asia or somewhere else realistic.
Moreover, even nations such as China are mooting a ban on tobacco advertising. F1 fans have also been outraged over threats to popular races because of local opposition to tobacco sponsorship. The dropping of the 2003 Belgian Grand Prix was met with howls of criticism, and last-minute arrangements had to be made to save the 2004 Canadian Grand Prix. The new races at the likes of Bahrain have won few fans and 2005’s new addition, Turkey, is keen to join the tobacco-hostile EU within the next few years.
The legislation has finally made tobacco advertising an unattractive proposition for the majority of the teams. Williams kicked the habit back in 2000 when its BMW deal began and Red Bull, Sauber, Minardi and Toyota were all running fag-free already. Now McLaren have ended their nine-year affiliation with West, leaving just four tobacco-backed teams: Ferrari (Marlboro), BAR (Lucky Strike / 555), Renault (Mild Seven) and Jordan (Sobranie / Benson & Hedges).
If this really is the beginning of the end for tobacco sponsorship in F1 it raises the question whether the impetus to expand the calendar further abroad will remain. Should Formula One become a global sport for the sake of it?
The costs and logistics notwithstanding, Formula One should re-centre its universe less exclusively around Europe. It continues to amaze me that, with so many other countries wanting to stage a race, there continue to be two rounds a year each in Germany and Italy, when so many other countries have none at all.
But, wherever Formula One does go next, it is time the quality of the circuits were given a higher priority.