How Gold Leaf sponsorship irreversibly changed Formula 1

From green and yellow to red and gold – cigarette advertisement irreversibly changed motorsport through the advent of, what are today, multi-million pound commerical deals

This year marks the 50th anniversary of what is often viewed as a watershed season in Formula 1. The 1968 season started at Kyalami in South Africa on New Year’s Day with familiar cigar-shaped cars painted in national colours. Yet within months F1 was in many ways unrecognisable.

The great Jim Clark departed in April and drivers lost their standard bearer. By the Belgian round at Spa-Francorchamps in early June cars were sprouting wings.

And for the Spanish Grand Prix on May 12 the Lotus was not in its usual green with a yellow stripe. Instead it was bedecked in the red, white and gold of cigarette sponsor Gold Leaf – as it had been in races in the months since Kyalami such as the Tasman Series and the non-championship Brands Hatch Race of Champions in March.

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Gold Leaf wasn’t the first non-trade commercial F1 sponsor, as Yeoman Credit Racing competed with British Racing Partnership then Reg Parnell in the early 1960s. That was a naming arrangement with the car painted in the company’s colours. Yet the Gold Leaf Lotus is seen justifiably as the launching pad of F1 sponsorship as we now know it, on-car sponsor’s logos and all.

Gold Leaf – then from 1972 the iconic John Player Special black and gold – was from the Imperial Tobacco company, know commonly as John Player. And its man in F1 at the time, George Hadfield, confirmed it was John Player that initiated the arrangement.

‘It’s very simple really,’ he says. ‘Then managing director Geoffrey Kent, now no longer with us, decided that whereas most sponsors sponsored rather small things, small pastimes, we wanted to do something rather bigger and better.

‘And we happened to have a brand of cigarettes – Gold Leaf – which was upmarket, nice colours, and we decided that we would use Colin Chapman.’

And in Chapman they found a receptive suitor. ‘My father was aware of what had been achieved by Parnell,’ says his son Clive. ‘Then at Indianapolis he became more aware of commercial sponsorship, and then in 1966 at Indianapolis Team Lotus went from British Racing Green to STP dayglow rocket red.’

‘We cast about,’ says Hadfield. ‘And I’ll tell you how naïve John Player were, they looked at Ginetta of all things! And I said for crying out loud! Just go to the biggest and the best! Lotus!

‘So they rang up and said yes and Geoffrey went to see Colin Chapman. And they were very great mates the pair of them. And the rest is history.

‘We sponsored tennis, we sponsored motocross, we sponsored all sorts of things but the motor racing very quickly dominated.’

Initially John Player sought to sponsor Lotus in a variety of categories. Some of these were dropped quickly while others, such as sponsoring in Formula 3, continued for a time. Rapidly the main focus was F1.

‘Colin Chapman even in those days was, and I don’t use the word lightly, extremely narrow-minded,’ Hadfield notes. ‘He wanted to win in Formula 1; anything else was almost an irritant.’

The arrangement all the way through had a humble basis.

‘It was a very simple exchange of letters,’ says Hadfield. ‘We would write to Colin at the beginning of the year and say we’d like to sponsor the following, and he would write back and he would quote at a price of car starts.

‘We never had, in the accepted sense, a contract with Colin Chapman – today we have high powered solicitors with umpteen-page contracts.

‘Chapman said the only time you use a contract is when things are going wrong. When you pull it out of a desk and say, “turn to page three, paragraph four.” If you’re in that state you shouldn’t be there anyway.’

Yet John Player also recognised how public consumption of F1 was changing.

‘To get a win in say a German Grand Prix in a Gold Leaf car was world news,' says Hadfield. ‘So actually impressing the 100,000 people in Germany watching the cars going round and round was really very small beer. What we were after was world acceptance which we got with a vengeance.

‘We were concerned about the people watching at a grand prix, but we were far more concerned with the millions who watched the result on TV and news that went around the world when we won.

‘Everyone had a TV set across the whole of Europe and all of North America.’

And the difference sponsorship made to Lotus also was fundamental.

‘It brought to the team a guarantee of income for the entire year,’ Hadfield outlines. ‘So they could pay the drivers, probably pay them as well as or better than almost anyone else; they could say to Shell we’ve got enough sponsorship to buy fuel, same with buying tyres.

‘It’s like having a big bank account. It means you can do things which you might be doing anyway but put the whole process under some sort of strain.

‘We paid the drivers, we paid Chapman, we paid for the team, we paid for the truck, it gave him complete financial freedom to do what he wanted to do.’

It was timely too. ‘The engines were more expensive with the Ford Cosworth DFV coming into the sport,’ Chapman says. ‘And technology was developing more generally.

‘In Formula 1 if you had more money then you could go quicker, you could have more mechanics, better equipment, more testing. It was another element of going quick, how much money you had.’

‘I can give you some idea of the costs,’ Hadfield continues. ‘I think when we were sponsoring Formula 3, 2 and 1 with Gold Leaf we would spend certainly no more than £100,000 a year, which is chicken feed.’

Of course sponsorship’s advent isn’t viewed unanimously as positive, not least due to its association with PR obligation and with influencing driver selections. John Player however did little of this.

‘We very rarely ever asked the drivers to do anything other than compete,’ Hadfield insists. ‘Because the idea of getting Ronnie Peterson to come to a dinner dance in London, where there might be 60 people or 600 people, so what? You’re convincing 600 or 60 – we’re not interested. We’re interested in convincing hundreds of thousands, through the newspapers and through the TV.

‘John Player never ever endeavoured or manoeuvred or sought to have British drivers in any of the cars, we were only interested in winning and we won a hell of a lot.

‘And we had absolutely nothing ever to do whatever with politics. If anyone said, “you know you shouldn’t be doing this or doing that” we said, “nothing to do with us we’re merely paying for the cars, speak to Colin Chapman”.’

Another myth is that Gold Leaf’s sponsorship met resistance from governing bodies and rival teams. Not so.

‘Did anyone object to our sponsorship? No, not a single person that I’m aware of,’ Hadfield recalls.

Sponsorship did however herald a complete change in how Lotus paid for its racing. ‘Up until then Team Lotus had funded itself principally by selling customer cars in quite high volume for privateers to race,’ Chapman says. ‘Gold Leaf sponsorship was the beginning of funding of the works team changing. Gradually over the next four years eventually Team Lotus stopped making cars for customers and its funding was entirely by sponsorship.

‘It grew over time, it was more a factor when John Player Special brand was created as a brand to be promoted in Formula 1, that was a whole concept approach and much more active in terms of promotion and media, briefing packs and press launches and all that kind of thing.

‘I think Imperial brought a level of ideas and professionalism to that aspect which really hadn’t been relevant beforehand.’

Hadfield believes the John Player sponsorship was vital in starting the growth of the British motor racing industry seen today, with many other teams in time following their lead.

‘Even before Marlboro, we were the first people ever who took Formula 1 racing and gave them what it needed, which was cash so that they could hire the best drivers, the best designers, the best this that and the other.’

‘Longer term we did the British motor racing and the British motor racing industry, which is big, a hell of a lot to start it on the right path.

‘We really set the British motor racing industry alight, and we were proud of it, we made it happen.

‘I’m told at Mercedes they have a payroll that is 1,000 strong and it all happens in England, well our payroll was eight!

‘Today you’ll still see people walking around in black and gold anoraks, and I’m proud of them.

‘I’m massively proud of what John Player did. We took the world by storm, and we won.’

Images courtesy of LAT

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