McLaren's long-time title sponsor, West, will be replaced on the flanks of next year's MP4-20 from the end of the summer, as strict new tobacco advertising bans begin to take effect.

While all teams with tobacco sponsorship have acknowledged that they are in talks with possible replacements - indeed McLaren has been exploring other avenues since the mid-1980s - the Woking team is the first to be linked to a confirmed alternative, with Diageo drinks brand Johnnie Walker expected to appear on its cars from mid-summer 2005. According to Scotland's Sunday Herald newspaper, which quotes 'a company insider', Diageo has agreed a ?36 million deal with McLaren following talks that also included Imperial Tobacco, the owners of the West brand in the UK.

Although the new EU laws governing tobacco branding are not set to come into force until 31 July next year, there are also suggestions that the Johnnie Walker name could appear on the McLarens from the first grand prix of the year, in Australia, in March. West's deal with McLaren does not end until the last day of July, but the talks are thought to have included provisions for the brand to be phased out ahead of schedule.

Indeed, having reported exceptional costs of ?129m in its recent operating and financial review, ostensibly relating 'to the agreed renegotiation of the Formula One contract due to legislative constraints, effective during the second half of 2005', Imperial Tobacco is understood to have wanted to end its deal early badly enough to have offered to pay McLaren 50 per cent of whatever was remaining to the end of the original contract.

A spokesman for Imperial confirmed to the Herald that the company "renegotiated the contract to comply with UK and EU legislation".

While tobacco restrictions continue to tighten, the regulations surrounding alcohol brands advertising their wares in motorsport remain considerably looser, despite the obvious connection to drink-driving.

Budweiser's backing of Williams is among the most notable current relationships in F1 - although Becks backed Jaguar until this season, and both Warsteiner and Finlandia vodka appear on the overalls of the McLaren drivers - but more deals are expected to follow suit once the tobacco ban opens the way for greater exposure via title sponsorship.

As if to underline that belief, a spokeswoman for Diageo told the Herald that talks would only have taken place with teams once it had been confirmed that "any association with tobacco companies had ended."

Ironically, a change of sponsor is unlikely to prevent McLaren having to run with 'Juan' and 'Kimi' emblazoned on the sidepods next season, for alcohol advertising remains outlawed in France....

Johnnie Walker is touted as the 'world's number one Scotch whisky' - available in five 'labels', each with its own distinctive taste - with Diageo claiming that over four bottles are consumed every second and more than 120 million sold every year in more than 200 countries. The company also owns other alcohol brands, such as Captain Morgan rum, Smirnoff vodka and Bailey's liqueur.


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