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Tobacco smoke may cloud Belgium fate

London: After welcoming China to the Formula One fold this week, Bernie Ecclestone must now turn his thoughts to Belgium.

While the world’s attention has been on the Far East, with Formula One’s commercial supremo signing a deal last Monday for Shanghai to host a Grand Prix from 2004 to 2010, Belgium has been waiting to re-enter the spotlight.

The 2003 calendar lists the country’s Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps on August 31 with an asterisk denoting that it is subject to all the teams being willing to race without tobacco advertising.

A meeting in London Monday of the international automobile federation’s (FIA) Formula One commission will remove that asterisk by deciding whether or not to drop one of the sport’s great circuits. Even though Spa is world champion Michael Schumacher’s favourite track and most drivers love the atmosphere at a road circuit harking back to the golden age of motor racing, its place is at risk.

There is a consensus that if Belgium disappears from the 2003 calendar it may never return.

The FIA has agreed to drop all tobacco advertising and sponsorship from 2006 in accordance with a global embargo planned by the World Health Organisation.

While some countries, such as Britain Monday, have passed legislation banning tobacco advertising before that date, they have granted exemptions to Formula One until 2006.

Belgium has not and Mosley and Ecclestone have not hidden their annoyance.

The country is due to introduce new tobacco advertising laws on August 1 next year and has made no exception for a Grand Prix that generates an estimated 25 million euros a year for the local economy.

The issue has been a running sore for Formula One and Ecclestone since 1999, when the government threatened legal action against teams running with tobacco advertising.

“Every year it’s the same thing... while the majority of other countries fully support their Grand Prix, in Belgium I have to fight to keep the race,” Ecclestone said at this year’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “If we stop, it won’t necessarily be because of the tobacco question. It’s a question of attitude. It’s not nice to go to someone’s house and feel you’re not welcome.”

The focus will be primarily on the five teams who have tobacco sponsorship — Ferrari, McLaren, Renault, Jordan and British American Racing.

Ferrari have Philip Morris brand Marlboro as their major sponsor and the race has been a showcase for the team in recent years with Schumacher triumphant four times for Ferrari and six times in total since his debut there in 1991.

Jordan are backed by Gallaher brand Benson and Hedges but Spa has also provided some of the team’s finest moments, including a one-two finish with 1996 world champion Damon Hill and Ralf Schumacher in 1998.

The circuit, which has hosted 36 of the 48 Belgian Grand Prix, has long been considered one of the most challenging on the calendar with its sweeping Eau Rouge left-right curve testing drivers’ bravery.

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