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Letter From Europe: Formula One, Tobacco, and the Far East

5 February 1998

Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

You may have seen by now that The European Community have agreed in principle to ban cigarette advertising by 2006. No more Marlboro man, no more posters, no more sponsorship of tennis. As always there is an exception. Formula One of course.

Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley managed to get a few more years grace by selling a huge dummy to the British Government. Loss of 50,000 jobs, British Grand Prix only once every three years, 10 races in the Far East and so on. The amazing thing is that Blair and Co swallowed this load of rubbish. It was at the British Government's insistence that Brussels agreed to make an exception for F1. This of course is very good news for European afficionados who otherwise would have had to choose between getting up at 4 a.m. once a fortnight or setting their alarm clocks for later on during the morning.

I still maintain that Bernie and Co were bluffing because the Far East is very far from ready for F1, right now they are lucky if the IMF agrees to save their ramshackle economies. Also, somehow The Grand Prix of Madras has a Peter Ustinov-ish twang to it, many people would regard it too silly to take seriously. I might be wrong but just as Sumo wrestling is essentially a Far Eastern sport I will always regard F1 as European.

Anyway, right now the first victim is likely to be the very best track in the world-Spa. The Belgian Government is adamant that they will ban cigarette advertising by 1999 which could mean some Far Eastern track replacing the greatest motor racing track in the world. It's called big business uber alles.

If Bernie and Mosley had a rival- a Branson/Murdoch combo for instance things could be very different. Might still be one day.. In the meantime-taking full advantage of the situation British American Tobacco are jumping into the fray with both feet. They are buying a great name to get in quickly and effortlessly - Tyrrell. Ken, the grand old man of Formula One was a timber merchant before he got involved in motor racing. Under his tutelage Jackie Stewart became world champion three times - in 69, 71 and '73. Since then the Tyrrell team has been struggling at the back of the grid so having been offered something like 30 million dollars they understandably took it. Quite what the team will be called once cigarette advertising is banned in Europe in 2006 I know not but luckily it is not my problem.

In the meantime teams have started testing their narrow-'98 spec- F1 cars, most drivers hate them and cannot understand the logic of it all. The bit that puzzles me most of all is that of grooved tyres. Apparently you only have to brake really, really hard once and you are on smooth tyres, having got rid of the grooves. Terrific! So what is Charlie Whiting going to do? Disqualify everybody? I think Max Mosley came up with an absolute do-do but once again all I do is tell you about it!

On a very different front let me tell you about how certain things never change, namely the juvenile attitudes of some automakers. I refuse to name the company point blank after what they've done but you might be able to guess their identity anyway.

An excellent autowriter had the temerity to suggest that on a new sports car there were bits that were still falling off, just like in the past. What did the manufacturer do-stopped him from having another one! This is a problem I lived with for something like 22 years as co-owner of Britain's CAR Magazine. Time after time great automotive writers such as Mel Nicholas or Steve Cropley would write things exactly as they found them. Manufacturer's instant cure- cancel the advertising! Apparently just like Domestos it kills all known germs..

When it was suggested to them that maybe they should improve certain aspects of the car they were horrified. To be fair, there were honorable exceptions but by and large they did not like criticism one little bit. I do therefore take my hat off to Mercedes-Benz who got it seriously wrong with the A class car. First they did the "Schumacher" gut reaction and denied all guilt but later on they realised that when German magazines were on the verge of turning the thing over they had to do something and do it pretty damn quick. The car is now fixed and the first thing they did was to invite the very same Swedish journalists who rolled the first one to try it again. This time they passed it as an OK car which I am sure it is.

Talking of Sweden their No 1 car company Volvo are confusing things greatly. For years they have been making boring but reliable cars such as the 740 Estate (wagons in the US) and they sold these very cleverly as the safest things on four wheels. Now it's all changed and suddenly we are faced with an S40T4, a V70 R AWD, an XC and God knows what else. Highly confusing but I suppose we will all get used to it in due course.

What is a lot less obvious is that they've turned some of their cars into Porsche beating rockets. T4s and Rs do 150 miles per hour and I know for sure that the Mums taking little Johnny home from school are not prepared for it!

Whatever else you do please check your Volvo's spec before you buy it otherwise you will be in for a big surprise. Having said all that Volvos are vastly better than they have been since the halcyon days of the 544 in the 60-s. I drove a new V70 in Calgary Canada the other day and it was excellent. Fast, reliable, a highly desirable automobile.

On an another tack I was horrified to read the latest issue of a well-known American motoring magazine. I simply could not believe their top ten/bottom ten list. The top ten one could argue about but the bottom ten was a scandal. They named the Hummer as the worst in just about every category?! No mention of Fords, Chryslers or any other manufacturers who could possibly be considered as advertisers. Now I know why CAR was such a success during the FF reign and for all I know it still might be to this day.