The break-up of one of the most successful Formula One sponsor-constructor partnerships of all time happened super-quickly and might have got a little bit weird - according to the documents that stay with us.
The former partnership between McLaren Racing Ltd. and Philip Morris International is a stuff of legends and one of the most successful ones in all of sporting history. The red & white colours of Marlboro painted on the Formula One cars of the team from Woking has been one of the most iconic sights of motorsports. So much so that many people still associate the team with said livery, eventhough it hadn’t been featured in 20 years.
The amounts of PMI’s tobacco money helped McLaren to win seven Constructors’ and nine Drivers’ Championship title between 1974 and 1991, spread out between Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
One of the key ingredients of the success was team principal Ron Dennis and his engine deals since he has been heading the firm in 1981. His politics of grooming drivers by sending them through the revolving door also paid off, although it caused some fantastic clashes over the years.
McLaren’s finest years went down the drain in the early 90s when they lost first their Japanese engine supplier, Honda, then their engineering mastermind Gordon Murray to work on the ‘F1’ road car and finally when superstar Ayrton Senna left the team for their biggest rival, Williams.
A few years of experimenting with new engines and drivers didn’t seem to work out for the team, suffering some of their worst ever seasons since the establishment of McLaren. This made their title sponsor, Philip Morris, make a few calculations and they decided a split was inevitable for the sake of a beneficial Revenue of Investment on their behalf.
Although the divorce was hanging in the air for some time, the actual confrontation and announcement was processed within a single day during the weekend of the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix.
Fortunately, the Industry Documents Library archived some of the since disclosed, then super-confidential mail exchanges that went down in those few days.
Drama in three acts
Ron Dennis - Team Principal of McLaren Racing Ltd.
John Hogan - Vice President of Marketing for Philip Morris Europe
David Dangoor - Executive Vice President for Philip Morris International
W. H. Webb - President and CEO for Philip Morris International
Walter Thoma - President of Philip Morris European Region
Location: Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain
Date: May 31st, 1996
Act I - Ambush
Two days prior to the scene, the stage is about to set between the chiefs of the European and the International divisions. Something wicked this way comes.
The European division is about to issue a press release and asks for clearance from the New York headquarters. But what’s in the box?
Act II - Clash of the Titans
Now we are talking business. All the main figures are in the play.
Whoah, some serious words. Three years of contract but having “actual intentions”? That’s heavy, Doc! Good to know Ron has senses.
Smart, old Ron, already a step ahead. But fear not, Philip Morris hasn’t even pulled the heavy artillery yet.
“Stand-bye” (sic!) is probably the most fitting typo in this letter. But wait: Ron Dennis talking/reacting emotionally? Now that’s something I’d pay to see. What could it be like? But the salt still hasn’t got into the wound.
Et tu, Brute? Also: ten days? It’s all there is to switching strategic partners?
Keep it tight, PMI, you might be falling in-between chairs.
So what’s in the box? This is:
Alright, we know that, but that’s not the thing. There’s half a page of yadda-yadda about the great successes they had with McLaren in F1 by Walter Thoma, who concludes:
I sense much ambiguity in you.
Act III - Resolution
25 million GBP a year? That was helluva money in F1 terms in 1996. Over third of the complete budget of a championship-winning team, if not half. Mercedes powerplant, plus German sponsor, plus German driver - McLaren was the Mercedes F1 team of the 90s.
That actually went almost as far as tobacco sponsorship was allowed.
Now that wasn’t a lie.
McLaren switched to the colours of the West cigarette brand from 1997 and they continued to do so until 2005. During this period they won one Constructors’ and two Drivers’ Championship title (and one after the sponsorship ended).
Although tobacco sponsorship in F1 was banned completely at the end of 2008, Ferrari’s main sponsor is still Philip Morris. Since 1997, they have won eight Constructors’ and six Drivers’ Championship titles.
Image grabs of documents derive from the archive of Industry Documents Library.
All other images are of Creative Commons licence.