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Tobacco ad bans could put auto racing in the pits

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In many ways, Montreal hosted a typical Grand Prix Formula 1 race last weekend. Some 317,000 fans poured into the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve to watch the world's best drivers handle the world's fastest cars. The temperatures soared, the engines roared, and Germany's Michael Schumacher, ranked No. 1 in the world, took the checkered flag.

But something was very different. Instead of "Lucky Strike" on its cars, Honda displayed its team logo and the words "Look Right." In place of "Marlboro," Ferrari painted huge blocks of white over the deep red car bodies. And instead of the words "Benson" and "Hedges" on its cars, the Jordan-Ford team blanked out certain letters to spell "Be on edge."

Unlike most of the 18 Grand Prix races around the world this year, tobacco advertising was conspicuously absent in Montreal.

Formula 1 costs each of the 10 teams anywhere between $40 million (team Minardi's budget) and $400 million (Ferrari's budget) annually, and tobacco companies have been heavily subsidizing several teams since the late 1960s. Though exact numbers are not known, estimates put annual payments at about $415 million. Canada's recent ban on tobacco advertising threatened to keep the Grand Prix from stopping through Montreal this year.

In the end, after much haggling between Bernie Ecclestone, who owns the commercial rights for the sport, and city officials, the event - which pumps $58 million into Montreal's economy - proceeded without big tobacco, costing each team unreported sums and the government $8.7 million.

Canada is the latest country to ban tobacco from Formula 1 races, following Britain, France, and Austria. If the trend continues, and as the European Union's scheduled 2005 ban on all tobacco advertising nears, observers say the sport will need to find other sponsors with deep pockets or it could quickly face a financial crisis.

"The teams can't afford to pay the huge prices [that come with touring] if they don't get their sponsors," says Chris Economaki, editor of National Speed Sport News and a racing analyst for 50 years. "Formula 1 is unique in that there is only one race a year in each country, Italy [and Germany] being the exception. So it's a very important sporting event in every country it visits."

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