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Whatever happened to MotoGP’s fag money?

Published: 17 September 2016

Cigarette cash bankrolled grand prix racing – then the cash dried up.


Entered racing Early 1970s

Famous for Pouring cash into the GP paddock

Banned from racing 2006

Over several decades, bike racing was a favourite shop window for the tobacco giants. The sport had everything they wanted: glamour, heroism, adrenaline and a whiff of danger. But all that came to an end a decade ago when tobacco sponsorship was banned due to smoking’s health implications. 

Marlboro, Rothmans and who else?

It’s a long list, but here’s a few that have sponsored various forms of motorcycle racing: Cabin, Camel, Chesterfield, Fortuna, Gitanes, Gauloises, HB, John Player Special, Kool, Lucky Strike, L&M, Marlboro, MS, Parisienne, Peter Jackson, Rothmans and West. During most of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, much of the MotoGP grid was funded by the tobacco industry. These were the sport’s richest years, when teams grew fat on the bountiful budgets bestowed upon them by urbane tobacco executives who swaggered around the paddock like they owned the place, which of course they did. 

What effect did the money have?

Tobacco largesse transformed the whole scene – it changed the non-factory teams from struggling, scruffy gangs into well-dressed outfits. Brand names ruled. Tobacco bosses poured in millions and they wanted the sport to look upmarket and glamourous. Most of the first hospitality units were bankrolled by cigarette money, so the cash forever changed the way the paddock and grid looked.

And what about the racing itself?

It dramatically improved the racing. Before tobacco sponsorship got serious in the late 1980s, only the factories could afford to run the best machinery. Non-factory teams struggled along with bikes that were nothing like as quick as the factory kit. But when the tobacco bosses started flashing their cheque books at non-factory squads, the teams suddenly had more than enough money to lease factory-spec bikes; initiating a system that exists to this day. It’s no coincidence that most super-close premier-class race finishes have been achieved since tobacco cash surged in.

Which was the first team to get tobacco cash?

It wasn’t a team, it was a rider: Giacomo Agostini. The 15-time world champion first wore a discrete Marlboro badge on his leathers in the early 1970s, when he was riding for MV. The Swiss-based tobacco barons didn’t only want Ago for his speed, they also chose him because the sometime movie star and full-time heartthrob would take them into the high-society party set, so their cigarettes would be suffused with jet-set glamour. In 1976 Ago got enough money from Marlboro to lease MVs for the factory’s swansong GP season.

Did Ago smoke?

No, but some racers did; most famously Barry Sheene, who was so hopelessly addicted to nicotine that he like to drill a hole in the chin piece of his helmets, so he could enjoy a sneaky puff while awaiting the start of a race. Sheene died from throat and stomach cancer in 2003, at the age of 52.

Who was the last racer who smoked his rivals on the track and sparked-up in the pits?

Luca Cadalora. The 125cc and 250cc world champ and 500cc GP winner liked a tab as soon as he returned to the pits after a race, just as Sheene had done. For some years Cadalora rode for Marlboro, so the Philip Morris bosses must’ve loved him. He now works as Valentino Rossi’s rider coach.

Any fag-funded racers who didn’t like smoking?

Plenty – racers are athletes who have to be seriously fit and strong, so most have an inbuilt hatred of smoking. John Kocinski, who raced for Marlboro Yamaha and Lucky Strike Suzuki, was very anti-smoking. While he was riding for Marlboro Yamaha he walked into a team press conference, wearing full Marlboro regalia, and asked a journalist to extinguish his cigarette. 

What happened when the tobacco companies left?

Grand Prix racing nearly collapsed. The ban on tobacco sponsorship at the end of 2006 couldn’t have come at a worse time – a few years after the introduction of the phenomenally expensive MotoGP four-strokes and just before the global financial crisis. Several big teams went to the wall because their primary funding disappeared overnight.

Now everything’s OK, right?

Not really. Money is still tight. When Dorna announced they are doubling payments to non-factory teams, they cited the disappearance of fag money as one of the prime reasons.

But don’t Marlboro still sponsor Ducati’s MotoGP team?

Yes, Marlboro are the only tobacco brand still involved. According to law, they aren’t allowed to display any logos, so their investment no longer has any value in selling cigarettes. Instead they use their involvement to wine and dine corporate guests, reward employees and so on.


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