Light Up – Memories of Cigarettes and Motorsport

In theory I should be a fully signed up chain smoker, a two packs a day man with a gravelly, action film voice-over tone. Born in the sixties when pretty much everyone smoked, in a family of parents and grandparents who all lit up regularly. Many of whom had actually been told it was good for you in their youth. It was certainly fairly normal back then and you couldn’t turn a magazine page without that man on his horse and the Marlboro Country scenic backdrop.

I’m sorry to disappoint the monumental efforts of those multi million dollar advertising budgets, but I’ve never so much as taken a puff. Thankfully for those tobacco giants, I’m probably the exception, as without the millions poured into motorsport by tobacco advertising across the decades, motorsport would not be the shape it is.

My childhood love of motorsport meant that I was constantly being subjected to the brands, the colour schemes and at that time, the still legal TV advertising. Brought up on a diet of Marboro McLaren, John Player Special Lotus, Rothmans Porsches, it’s fair to say that I’ve been subjected to an above average amount of cigarette advertising.

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There can be only one....
There can be only one…. The car I played with as a kid,

There is no doubt, of course, that smoking is bad for you. But we have the tobacco companies to thank for some of the most spectacular motor racing colour schemes in history. We would never have the black and gold of the Lotus and even the most sceptical must admit that the Corgi Lotus 72 model that we all own somewhere just wouldn’t look the same in any other paint job.

James Hunt just wouldn’t look the same without Marlboro on his overalls. In these politically correct times, an IT company or global bank buying space on James’ tinted visor would probably be dismayed at his antics.

The global nature of Formula One coverage naturally lends itself to tobacco advertising and they were amongst the first overt sponsors, leveraging the exposure in a pioneering way. Here is my top list of the most prolific or important tobacco related colour schemes in the history of motorsport.

Gold Leaf – Lotus

Generally considered to be the pioneer of motorsport sponsorship and tobacco advertising, Colin Chapman’s Gold Leaf colours of red over white, with the Gold Leaf band was the first tobacco sponsorship deal. It’s probably quite convenient that Chapman talked Gold Leaf into motorsport just at the point that aerodynamics were gaining widespread development. Those wings just cried out ‘advertising space’ at just the right time to attract tobacco giants.

Starting with the Lotus 49 in Gold Leaf colours in the Tasman series before continuing into Formula One, the racing colours became symbolic of Chapman’s dealmaking ability to keep a cash hungry racing team in business.

Graham Hill, Gold Leaf Lotus
Graham Hill, Gold Leaf Lotus

John Player Special – Lotus

Black and Gold. Everyone knows the JPS colour scheme instantly. It’s perhaps ironic that one of my first toy cars was the Corgi Lotus 72. A child’s toy adorned with the name of a cigarette company. Can’t see that one being popular today. In fact, the John Player Special colours were not a fresh sponsor replacing Gold Leaf, but was a continuation of the relationship with the same company. John Player and Sons owned both brands and elected to go with the back and gold livery from the Lotus 72 onwards. John Player’s Lotus association saw the brand on the overalls of some of the world’s most famous drivers before they finally finished in 1986 with the Lotus 98T.

Black n Gold....
Black n Gold….

Colin Chapman’s car salesman instinct shone through on both of these long running deals, or course, with limited edition road car versions of both the Gold Leaf Elise and the Black and Gold Lotus Esprit Turbo. Other places you may recall seeing the JPS colours would be the Australian Touring Car team’s majestic and tuneful BMW 635CSi.

For me, the most memorable image of JPS colours was a cars and Car Conversions cover shot of Ayrton Senna having a crack at rally car driving in a Welsh forest on his day off. That yellow helmet and those overalls strapped into a Metro 6R4 make that magazine a keeper for me.

Marlboro – McLaren, Ferrari, BRM, Alfa Romeo

Marlboro are probably the most prolific and long running of tobacco sponsorship giants. Not content with a single team, Marlboro sponsorship and branding dominated a period in the way that energy drinks companies do today. The red and white banners which perfectly mirrored the pack layout adorned F1 race teams from Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, McLaren, plus entire racing circuits.

Hunt was the perfect tobacco sponsorship front man
Hunt was the perfect tobacco sponsorship front man

Tobacco was finally banned from motorsport in 2003. And yet it is considered that Philip Morris, owners of Marlboro, continued to support Ferrari even though their colours were no longer on the car. The powerful B2B advantages of an F1 paddock are allegedly motivation enough for them to keep their place in the F1 scene.

Marboro seemed to utterly dominate motorsport at one point, probably the subject of an article of itself. Team Yamaha ran with them as Kenny Roberts fought in that brital 500cc era, Ford Escorts and Metro 6R4’s blasted through forests with the blue and gold logo beneath the mud

Somewhere in the attic is my AGV Kenny Roberts Replica, complete with Marlboro sticker on the top.

Benson & Hedges – Jordan

Whatever you may think of Eddie Jordan’s secondary career as a loud shirt wearing TV mouthpiece, there’s no denying he was a dealmaker. While he will always be quick to remind us that he was the man who put Michael Schumacher in a Formula One car, before Michael’s management dodged deftly across to Benetton, for me he is more famous for the marketing skills he brought to the vivid yellow Benson and Hedges sponsorship. A small team with a limited budget, Eddie fought his way into F1 via the lower formulas and enjoyed rare success in actually managing to stay there where other budding teams have failed.


Bright yellow at that time was not especially representative of Benson and Hedges brand colours, but Eddie knew that vivid yellow on a racing car always stands out on television. Add in his clever use of Jordan, the model with the same name fitted with additional plastic bodywork and the team were getting press and PR coverage that punched above their weight.

Rothmans – Williams, Porsche WEC, Prodrive rallying, aerobatics

In the same way that Marlboro seemed to be omni-present, Rothmans created a diverse portfolio of motorsport programs that had a profound effect on me. At a time when endurance racing was just beginning to register on my adolescent radar, Rothmans teamed up with the Porsche factory team in Group C racing. Winning the 1982 LeMans with a 1-2-3 finish in the Porsche 956. They would, or course, widen the Porsche connection to the Paris Dakar winning 959 and also supported the Prodrive run 911SC-RS, famous for those spectacular Circuit of Ireland in car videos of Billy Coleman and Saiid Al Hajri, or Sid Hedgerow as the locals knew him.

Rothmans Porsche - the words merge into one
Rothmans Porsche – the words merge into one

Prodrive head Dave Richards had previously been sponsored alongside Vatanen in his Escort, so I’m sure there was a deal done in cultivating that relationship. Rothmans stayed with Prodrive into the Subaru era before swapping out the brand to sister livery, the bright blue State Express 555.

Personally, probably my most emotional Rothmans memories are of seeing the Rothmans Pitts Specials aerobatic team practicing from my local airport with a four ship Pitts Special team in Rothmans colours. Collecting the stickers and memorabilia squeezed through the fence by the team members create memories that stay with me to this day.

Gitanes – Ligier, Matra – Simca

No discussion on F1 and cigarettes would be complete without the French. To this day when in France, I often see the locals in the Tabac, Cafes and Restaurants lighting up. Californians would probably go nuts about this, but for me it’s typical of the French attitude to authority. As a kid, I had no idea what Gitanes were. But what I did know was that those beautiful French racing blue Ligiers looked stunning in those colours.

To me, Gitanes were synonymous with pretty Ligiers and those even prettier Matra – Simca Le Mans racers of the seventies. Say Gitanes to me and I have visions of cool Frenchmen with overalls tied around their waist and girls in hot pants.

Cool French racers and their Gitanes colours
Cool French racers and their Gitanes colours

Ligier with Gitanes colours

Image credit 1980 Ligier JS11/15 By Darren – DT123990, CC BY 2.0,

Do we Miss Tobacco Advertising in Racing?

For me? Personally, I feel that we should bring back tobacco to F1. Some of the most spectacular drivers of the era were synonymous with the brands they raced under. My view on the health aspect is that sponsorship encourages existing smokers to switch brands. Nobody that I know took up smoking after seeing Senna’s spectacular qualifying lap of Monaco. Their decision to light up was probably taken years earlier, around the back of the cycle sheds in the playground at school.

Tobacco companies brought huge amounts of money to the sport. This meant that the teams could hire the fastest guys, not the average Joes with a large cheque from a South American bank. For sure, there would still be pay drivers, but it would certainly cut down on the issue if the teams weren’t beholden to a driver with a large personal budget that ensured the payroll could be met.

These days, many younger people I know don’t always make the connection between the historic racing car’s colour scheme and the smoking product. Several people I know thought that Camel’s yellow branding had something to do with 4×4 adventures. McRae’s Impreza in Sonic Blue and gold wheels is in fact a tobacco brand. Very few people brought up on the diet of the video game will realise it today.

But of course we know that the return of tobacco to motorsport will never happen. The days of expecting people to be responsible for their own actions are long gone. Today, we have energy drinks, banks and IT companies all hoping that some of the excitement of motorsport will rub off as they rub schmooze in the hospitality skyscraper. Boring.

And after all those t-shirts, tight shorts, stickers, jackets and trackside advert banners, I still haven’t lit up. But then, nor do I drink Red Bull or own a Monster Energy baseball cap.

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Author: Neill Watson

If you love the sound of the Cosworth V8 as much as the V12 Merlin, the smell of Jet A1 as much as Castrol R and admire the late Ray Hanna as much as Sir Stirling, you’ll find you’re both on the same page. Neill's love of art deco buildings means that his ideal home would be a brilliant white, 1930′s control tower in Southern France, with crisply mown grass, biplane parked on the driveway and a Ferrari 288GTO in the garage. This is something that those around him tolerate, though it does concern them from time to time.

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