The well-funded dance between alcohol sponsorships and the sports world is an elaborate shuffle. Franchises, leagues and federations around the world seek out lucrative ad revenue from the realm of spirits, wine and beer, leaving fans who care wondering how athletic competition can support and celebrate a potential vice that proves unhealthy if overindulged. In other words, booze can enhance the enjoyment of competition, but never the execution of it – particularly when it comes to driving. So, should its makers sponsor sports?

The question sweats the most under the lights of automobile racing. With drunk driving remaining a deadly, yet wholly avoidable plague on the world’s roads, alcoholic beverage makers still sponsor international racing at the highest levels. Cars and alcohol don’t mix in practice, but they mingle in sports, sending the confusing and potentially dangerous message: enjoy a drink with your friends before and during this car race – just stop before you get into your own vehicle.

Beyond the brew ads of NASCAR and INDYCAR, the racing world can offer no more passion, spectacle – and advertising fortunes – anywhere in the world than in Monza for the Formula One Italian Grand Prix. The 13th of 20 races on the F1 schedule, the 53 lap run at Autodromo Nazionale Monza annually produces passion and spectacle rarely found anywhere else in the sports world.

This year, more than 113,000 fans flooded into the Autodromo over two days of time trials and lower circuit races before watching Mercedes-Benz drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas take first and second respectively. That podium gave the German fans of Mercedes and the British supporters of Lewis Hamilton plenty of motivation to get their flags waving.

Surrounding the track, hanging above it and marking its entrance and exit points, the green flags and signs of Heineken greeted happy fans at every turn. The hordes of Italian saints the locals believe look down on the town and the racetrack didn’t let the devoted Italian fans head home empty handed as Sebastian Vettel drove his red Ferrari to third place. It was “first and second be damned” as Ferrari lovers flooded the track after the race to plumes of red smoke and streamers launched in the colors of the red, white and green Italian flag.

With all of that pomp and circumstance on the track, well-oiled fans in the stands surrounding the park and big money corporate guests peering down from their perches, a larger message marked with a red star shouted out to everyone in attendance. The largest brewer in Europe was taking on the dichotomy of beer and cars. Race and F1 sponsor Heineken brought their “When You Drive Never Drink” campaign to every grandstand and multiple sign posts along the raceway.

As he is for every F1 race, Sir Jackie Stewart was holding court with fans, drivers and race crews as he made his rounds from pit to pit. An official brand ambassador for Heineken, the three-time Formula One champion (1969, 1971 and 1973) and 27 F1 race winner, Stewart watched the sport evolve over the last couple of decades into a multi-billion dollar business. Still, it’s not the money that rains down on F1 that Stewart sees as the biggest evolution in the sport.

“The biggest change I’ve seen in Formula One Racing isn’t the drivers or the cars. It’s not the technology or the crowds. It’s television. It’s that power of television that pushed the sport to the incredible heights it’s experiencing now.” 

No stranger to the world of TV, Stewart has behind him an 18-year career as a sports commentator for ABC and its Wide World of Sports franchise. His enthusiastic, precise color commentary at the Indianapolis 500 was as much a part of the 1970s as disco and polyester.

“When I was competing, there were more print journalists covering the races. Now, television is everywhere. That reach of TV not only helps to publicize the sport, but it gives the sport and its sponsors a tremendous platform to promote causes. Without the growth and the power of television, I don’t think the sport draws in a company like Heineken as a major sponsor. More importantly, I don’t think Heineken gets the opportunity to get a positive message like the ‘When Your Drive Never Drink’ campaign out to such a big audience.”

On the days just prior to the Italian Grand Prix, Heineken brought in five UEFA Champions League Legends to take on five F1 drivers in support of “When You Drive, Never Drink.” At stake on the custom-made go kart track was €25,000 for an Italian road safety charity.

The Champions of the Grid 2017 F1 team included David Coulthard, Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon. The UEFA Champions League squad invited Fransesco Toldo, Dida, Michel Salgado, Louis Saha and Christian Karembeu.

The Champions of the Grid go kart race was a rematch for Heineken’s 2016 Champions of the Grid football match, which saw UEFA Champions League Legends kick around F1 drivers in a five-on-five football match during the Italian GP weekend. The soccers stars dribbled away with a 22-10 victory.

This year F1 Stars (coached by Sir Jackie) predictably captured the 2017 Champions of the Grid title, defeating the UEFA Champions League legends 3-1.

Gianluca Di Tondo, Senior Director Global Heineken Brand, was in attendance for the Champions of the Grid event and the Italian Grand Prix. He took the chance to talk up the positive impact he believes the brewer’s anti-drunk driving push can make.

“Heineken is proud to sponsor both Formula One and the UEFA Champions League,” he said. “We brought these two global sporting platforms together to support ‘When You Drive Never Drink’ program because we are committed to inspiring positive change around responsible alcohol consumption. For this event, we are also proud to raise money for charity to help improve road safety in Italy.”

How this plays to the eye speaks to the nature of the viewer. Wanting to dodge charges of hypocrisy from drunk driving advocacy groups, Heineken and F1 promote beer and racing while warning the public off sampling that same relationship in practice. Heineken stands to make significant gains from this, both in terms of profit and reputation as a socially responsible company. But it is also true that their massive advertising platform is being used to spread an important message of public safety.

Back at Monza, the multi-million dollar cars of the racers were loaded up on their way to Singapore and the next F1 tour stop. Racing fans still milled about the raceway before heading home. They would have had to be blind to miss Heineken’s message – the hope is that they drove out onto highways safer and more sober than they might have done otherwise.

About the author

JOHN SCOTT LEWINSKI travels around the world as a writer, writing for more than 30 international magazines and news sites. He covers lifestyle, travel, cars, motorcycles, technology, golf, liquor, fashion and other related topics.