White Meets Red: Marlboro’s Influence on Formula One

Feature image: slapnap.net

Now it might be strange that I am praising a cigarette company for being a huge part of the commercial success of Formula One, after tobacco sponsorship was banned in the sport in the middle of 2005. However, Marlboro saw huge success through their sponsorships of some of the biggest names in single seater racing and helped form a model of how major sponsorships would operate in the world of Formula One.

Tobacco is seen as the first real commercial sponsor, way back in 1968 when Gold Leaf sponsored Graham Hill’s championship winning Lotus 49 with a red white and gold livery similar to the design of their cigarette boxes. Marlboro would join their industry rivals and sponsor British Motor Racing (BRM) for the 1972 season, and thus showed the world the first and definitely not last Marlboro branded car in motor racing.

After sponsoring a short on cash Frank Williams for the ’73 season, Marlboro instead found success with McLaren when Emerson Fittipaldi won the championship in ’74 and James Hunt two years later in ’76. The success was short-lived, and they didn’t find success until Ron Dennis’ takeover in 1981.

Even though the cars they sponsored weren’t always first at the chequered flag, Marlboro’s branding was unlike anything the paddock had seen before and reflects what the paddock looks like in the modern day. The branding on all vehicles, including the Formula One cars, motor homes, hospitality units, transporters and even the teams support vehicles were branded in the red, white and black of Marlboro.


Mark Gallagher, author and former media professional for Marlboro Cigarettes, talked about how part of his role was to work with drivers in the lower formulae of single seater racing and help to turn them into ambassadors for the brand. They used every chance they could get, making sure to have the Marlboro branding in the correct places to maximise the exposure from the media.

Drivers uniforms, t-shirts and even baseball caps were made for the right people to wear at the right time, including podium celebrations and tv interviews. Marlboro showed first glimpses of a colourful paddock where brands and teams would combine alike and is reflected behind the scenes of the modern-day paddock too. The biggest consumer brand in the sport wanted more success, which is what brought them to Ron Dennis.


Mark Gallagher

After sponsoring his championship winning Project 4 BMW Procar team, Marlboro knew that Dennis was a proven winner and leader and somewhat ‘helped’ McLaren choose Dennis to take over the team in 1981. Thus, started the hugely successful and one of the most iconic partnerships between Ron Dennis’ McLaren and Marlboro. With the white, red and black livery and superstar drivers in Alain Prost, Aryton Senna and Niki Lauda, the total number of championships McLaren won while partnered with the tobacco brand stands at nine. Some of these include the legendary MP4/4, considered the greatest ever formula one car and the M23.

As well as their partnership with McLaren, Marlboro also had their hand dipped into the biggest and most well-known team in the sport, Scuderia Ferrari. Their partnership started in 1993 and after McLaren ended their long-term relationship with the company in 1997, Marlboro became a title sponsor for Ferrari and hence becoming Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro.

Marlboro enjoyed huge successes with Ferrari, largely thanks to Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn where they won 6 consecutive constructors’ championships and 5 consecutive drivers’ championships. When Ferrari’s glory days came to an end for the 2005 season, so did the tobacco sponsorship industry in the EU. Anti-tobacco legislation saw the ban of all tobacco companies in Europe which meant brands such as Benson & Hedges, Mild Seven and Lucky Strike that had been part of the sport for decades would not been seen again.


Controversially, Marlboro stayed as Ferrari’s main sponsor and only removed the brand identity where it needed to. Over the previous years of the partnership, the red and white of Ferrari had become synonymous with colours of Marlboro’s branding and even though they had to remove all their branding, the colour of the Ferrari was enough. Marlboro continues to promote themselves legally and are still sold worldwide.

[This was originally posted in January 2021 on DriveTribe.com]

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