Confusion grows over the future of Canadian Grand Prix

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The Independent Online

The future of the Canadian Grand Prix remained a mystery yesterday after Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula One, denied claims by the race organisers that the event had been dropped.

On Thursday the race's promoter, Normand Legault, had claimed that he had received a letter from Ecclestone which he said confirmed that Montreal would not be hosting a race in 2004 due to national anti-tobacco laws. But Ecclestone later denied this was the case.

"I've no idea where this story came from, the calendar for 2004 has not been put out yet or even been considered," he said.

Asked what his thoughts were on next season's calendar, he added: "I don't know what's in my head at the moment, I'm so busy but the calendar for 2004 is not out yet." Legault has ruled out asking for government help to save their Grand Prix, if it is faced with the chop.

A similar fate hit Belgium this season, but politicians there convinced the government to make a special case for F1 and the race is back on the 2004 schedule. But Legault has ruled out that course of action, insisting it is up to F1 teams to take the initiative and save the Canadian Grand Prix.

"This letter says that Canada's Grand Prix won't show up on the F1 world championship 2004 calendar," Legault said. "The decision was basically made in light of the 1 October application of Canada and Quebec's anti-tobacco legislation.

"I feel that was a very reasonable position on the Canadian government's part and I don't feel justified for us to ask the government to do more than that. It's not necessarily for the tobacco laws to be changed to accommodate the teams. It might be for the teams to decide to comply with various local legislation in the countries they visit."

But Legault admitted that a confrontation over the issue has been looming for some time after Canada served notice of its intention to ban tobacco advertising on F1 cars seven years ago. He added: "Based on this situation, Mr Ecclestone has the legal right to call an end to the contract. It's nothing personal. It's a contractual matter. It's an issue he had the right to raise and which he did raise and we're faced with his decision on how he deals with it.

"But we feel, and when I say we, I mean by extension F1, we have already benefited from a seven-year grace period for promoting tobacco products."

Canada had been expected to form part of a North American double-header with Indianapolis in June when the dates for next season were announced and, if Ecclestone has indeed not dropped Montreal from his plans, that could yet occur.

Ecclestone had been accused of unseemly behaviour over what appeared at the time to be his decision. "This is tantamount to extortion," Garfield Mahood, executive director of the Canadian Non-Smokers' Rights Association said. "There's no question that Formula One is playing hardball."

A spokeswoman for the Canadian health minister Anne McLellan said the government would stand firm against Ecclestone, insisting that health concerns were more important than motor racing.

"We recognise that there will be an important impact on Montreal's economy but we also have an obligation to protect the health of Canadians. We feel very strongly about our legislation," said Farah Mohamed, McLellan's press officer.

Legault said the decision would hurt the city because the weekend event has drawn crowds of more than 300,000.

"There's an important economic impact," he said. "There [would] be an important negative impact on Montreal's tourism."