'SA was ahead of the curve' - 50 years of sponsorship in F1

Cape Town - Remember the radio advertisement in the ’Eighties featuring the singsong sounds of a tobacco auction drowning out the dramatic accompanying music, with a deep, masculine voice delivering the pay-off line: "Men rate… Gunston great"?

Well, think of this when the ensemble of multicoloured Formula 1 cars, vividly bedecked with sponsorship insignias, blast off the grid in Australia on Sunday for the first race of the 2018 season…

SA was ahead of the curve

You see, this will mark an interesting landmark in the history of the sport – a half-century of sponsorship in F1. And even more remarkable about this milestone innovation is the fact that, contrary to popular belief, it was a South African invention…

When the modern F1 championship was established in 1950, all the participating teams’ cars ran without any badging and in the national colours of the marque – blue for French cars, red for Italian marques, green for British teams, white (or silver) for German cars, white (with blue stripes) for the USA, and white with a red “sun” for Japanese entrants.

This started to change when in the mid-1960s Team Lotus began to use its name on its cars and Honda followed suit in 1966. Besides the name badges, the closest thing to sponsorship came from tyre and oil companies who supplied their products in exchange for a small logo on the drivers’ overalls, but overt sponsorship was banned. 

However, in 1968, the oil companies BP and Shell withdrew from F1 and tyre supplier Firestone decided to cancel all free supplies. The sport was in trouble, and to boost teams’ income the governing body decided to allow sponsorship for the first time.

But South Africa, incidentally the only country outside of Europe to run a F1 Championship, was ahead of the curve. It was the late Dr Anton Rupert who had the farsightedness to recognise the importance and value of motorsport and was the first to initiate corporate branding in F1. 

Team Gunston

The first sponsored F1 team, called Team Gunston, was actually launched in December 1967 – at the non-championship Rhodesian Grand Prix held at the James McNeillie Circuit in Bulawayo – as reported in the erstwhile Motoring Mirror: 

“A lot of the background talk at the Rhodesian GP centered on the launching of Team Gunston and the partnership of John Love and Sam Tingle in F1 racing for 1968. 

“The Winston Tobacco Company, marketers of Gunston cigarettes, have offered sponsorship to these two fine ambassadors of Rhodesian motorsport and they will campaign under the attractive Gunston colours.” 

The company was part of the Rembrandt Group and the rationale behind the sponsorship was to promote Gunston cigarettes in South Africa, the primary target market. Love, in a distinctive orange and brown coloured Brabham BT20, won the race, while Tingle. in a similarly covered LDS Repco, did not finish. 

The launch of Team Gunston prior to the Rhodesian Grand Prix in Bulawayo, December 1967. Image: Virtual Motorpix: Mike Wesson

The immaculately turned and highly visible out cars again appeared at the SA Grand Prix held at Kyalami on 1 January 1968. This race, won by Jim Clark, was the first time a sponsorship-liveried team competed in an event counting towards the F1 World Championship of Drivers and the International Cup for F1 Manufacturers.

Incidentally, it was Clark’s last F1 victory (he was killed shortly after in practice for a F2 event at Hockenheim), his last race in a F1 car, and his third last race in a car not adorned with sponsorship livery…

Gold Leaf Team Lotus

You see, three weeks later Clark’s Tasman Series Lotus 49T appeared at the Lady Wigram Trophy Race, third round of the series in New Zealand and Australia, in the red, white and gold colours of Gold Leaf cigarettes – the culmination of secret negotiations between Lotus boss Colin Chapman and Imperial Tobacco in a deal said to be worth about R1.2-million.

According to Ken Davies of Retro-Speed magazine the unusual Gold Leaf colours led to track officials at Wigram refusing to allow Clark’s Lotus out onto the circuit.

However, they relented at the last minute when Chapman stood his ground, reasoning to himself that the organisers of this relatively minor race meeting were unlikely to disqualify one of their main crowd-pullers.

The livery made its European debut at the third Race of Champions, a non-Championship F1 race, in March 1968, when Clark’s 49 bedecked in Gold Leaf decals was entered, driven by Graham Hill. 
According to Davies this provoked a far more formidable backlash; not from the Royal Automobile Club, but from ITV, the UK’s major commercial television station. 

Graham Hill in the Gold Leaf-sponsored Lotus 49 in 1969. Image: Wikicommons: Lothar Spurzem

Evidently ITV contacted Chapman during the practice sessions and informed him that unless he removed the sailor’s head logo from his car, the broadcasting of the race would be cancelled.
This time Chapman apparently relented, instructing the team to tape over the logo. However, he knew it would make little difference, as given the poor quality of the TV coverage the logo would hardly be seen by the viewers…

It was only in May 1968, at the Spanish Grand Prix held at Jarama, that a Gold Leaf-bedecked Lotus made its debut in a World Championship event. Following the death of Clark, as well as the death of his replacement Mike Spence during practice for the Indianapolis 500 five days before the event, only Hill was entered for this race (a second car entered for Jackie Oliver could not be set up in time). He won it, albeit by default.

Tobacco sponsorship

Despite ITV’s defiant but commercially driven stand on the issue, the events of Kyalami, Wigram, Brands Hatch and Jarama served to cast the die for the future funding of Formula 1.

While some say the sport was, and still is, corrupted by commercial considerations, the F1 teams were very quick in realising the potential of the tobacco industry’s marketing budgets, and soon almost every single team profited from cigarette company sponsorship.

Besides Gunston and Gold Leaf, numerous tobacco brands – including JPS (Lotus), Camel (Lotus, Benetton, Williams, Tyrrell), Marlboro (McLaren, Ferrari, BRM, Alfa Romeo), West (McLaren, Zakspeed), Benson & Hedges (Jordan), Rothmans (Williams), Winfield (Williams), Lucky Strike (Lotus, BAR, Honda), Gitanes and Gauloises (Ligier), Mild Seven (Benetton, Renault, Tyrrell) and Barclay (Arrows, Williams) –  graced the bodywork of F1 cars over a period of forty years.

It also gave us some of the most memorable artwork and liveries seen on cars, the most famous being the black and gold JPS colours used by Lotus for fifteen years and the Marlboro livery as used by McLaren for over 20 years. 

Paddy Driver in the Team Gunston Lotus 72 in 1974. Image: Team Gunston Pinterest

During this time fuel, oil and tyre companies also moved in quickly, as did some others, including Yardley, Brook Bond Oxo, Eiffeland and Martini, why, even Penthouse and Durex sponsored F1 teams!

This new generation of branded cars in effect became fast-moving billboards for their respective sponsors, not only commercialising F1, but every category of motorsport.

Locally, Team Gunston was the stimulant needed to keep running a F1 Championship (it eventually ended in 1975) and resulted in other commercial entities becoming involved in sponsoring local cars and events. The team was disbanded in 1986.

Tobacco companies were the mainstay of F1 sponsorship for over three decades, but in the early 2000s countries began to place a ban on cigarette advertising. 

This led to some very creative liveries and slogans, such as West becoming “East”, and B&H becoming “Buzzin’ Hornets”, “Bitten and Hisses” and “Be on edge”, while Marlboro (allegedly) used barcodes associated with its cigarette brands.

An interesting and creative execution. The “Bitten and Hisses” Jordan 197 of 1997. Image: Motorstown.com

At the height of tobacco sponsorship in 1999, cigarette manufacturers spent nearly R100-billion on advertising and promotions, according to the US Federal Trade Commission, but in July 2005 the European Union banned tobacco advertising outright. Interestingly, Philip Morris (owners of Marlboro) still remains a major sponsor of Scuderia Ferrari.

The global recession of 2009 may have taken its toll, but there still is no turning back the tide, and today over 300 brands are involved in F1 sponsorship, spending close to R17-billion on the sport annually.

The first fully liveried Gold Leaf Team Lotus car made its debut in Melbourne, Australia, in February 1968 during the Aussie leg of the Tasman series. Now, 50 years later, a total of twenty cars with dazzling sponsorship livery will take to the grid in Melbourne… and to think it all started in Southern Africa.