Born on April 12th 1950 in Verzuolo, near Turin in northern Italy, Flavio Briatore eventually found his way into Formula One. But he did not share the love of the sport his country is famous for – his arrival in F1 came from his business interests.
Nevertheless the man who was dismissed early in his F1 career as a ‘T-shirt salesman’ steered Renault and Benetton to seven world championship titles and hired two of Formula One’s biggest stars, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher.
His parents were teachers and after leaving his Catholic school Briatore worked as a ski instructor, then later in insurance and property. In 1974, while living in Milan and working on the stock exchange, he met Luciano Benetton. That encounter set him on the path to F1.
By 1982 he was working for Benetton in New York as the business sought to establish itself in America. By the late eighties the company had gone from being unheard of and unrepresented to having 800 shops across the country.
Its success was bolstered by its famously controversial advertising campaigns, of which Briatore said: “We didn’t have big budgets for normal advertising in magazines or on TV, so we decided to do something very controversial that people would pick up on – 50% of people thought it was great and 50% thought it was awful, but in the meantime everyone was talking about Benetton.”
Briatore combined a hard work ethic with a vibrant social life, which he remains famous for since becoming one of F1’s most successful team managers.
It was at this time that Briatore first came into contact with the sport. Luciano Benetton took him to the Australian Grand Prix at the end of the 1988 season. The team had taken over Toleman at the end of 1985, won its first race in 1986 with Gerhard Berger, but hadn’t repeated the feat since, and the Benetton company was considering winding up the F1 team.
Briatore was appointed commercial director of the F1 team in 1989. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone later claimed he had a hand in the move, saying: “When he first came over, Mr Benetton said to me, ‘Would I look after him?’ Nobody knew him. Benetton was going to stop. I said, ‘Don’t stop,’ and he said, ‘Well I don’t know who’s going to run it, but I’ve got a guy in New York… I’ve brought him over. Would you look after him?’ And that is how it happened.”
The fact that he had no F1 background did not go unnoticed. Briatore said: “My approach was to manage a team like you manage any other company. I was not emotional because it was not my passion.”
Briatore quickly took control of the team, ousting the former management and hiring former McLaren and Ferrari designer John Barnard. When Barnard left Briatore hired Tom Walkinshaw as his technical man.
In 1991 Briatore was promoted to team principal. By then the team had added three more wins and had three times champion Nelson Piquet and his Brazilian friend Roberto Moreno driving for them. Piquet won at Montreal that year, but it was a fortunate win inherited when Nigel Mansell’s Williams failed on the final lap.
The Schumacher years
Now Walkinshaw and Briatore pulled off the master stroke that would revolutionise the team’s fortunes. When a young German named Michael Schumacher made his Grand Prix debut for Jordan at the Belgian Grand Prix, the pair swooped to prise him from Eddie Jordan’s hands. Moreno was paid off, and Briatore had his man.
Walkinshaw brought his former sports car racing employee Ross Brawn on board in 1992 – the dream team was falling into place. In 1994, after Ayrton Senna died and despite a string of controversies, Schumacher won his first championship for Benetton.
Despite that success Briatore had identified their Ford Cosworth V8 engine as a weak link in the package. He bought Ligier to acquire their supply of Renault engines as used by Williams, took the Renault engines for Benetton, and put Walkinshaw in charge of Ligier. In 1995, Schumacher once again took the drivers’ title and Benetton won the constructors’ championship.
But that was the end of Schumacher’s tenure at Benetton. Seeking to distance himself from the controversies of 1994 (not all of which had been his making), Schumacher left Benetton for Ferrari in 1996, with the Ferrari pair of Berger and Jean Alesi coming to the team in his place.
Benetton slumped. They failed to win a race all year and Briatore’s interests elsewhere were also not coming to fruition. He bought a stake in the Minardi team with the intention of selling it to British American Tobacco, who wanted their own F1 outfit. But when partners Gian Carlo Minardi and Gabriele Rumi (who Briatore had bought the stake from) failed to support the move, he sold the interest back to them. BAT later bought the Tyrrell team and created British American Racing.
A disappointed Briatore was replaced at Benetton by David Richards at the end of 1997. He turned his attention to a new enterprise selling customer Renault F1 engines prepared by Mecachrome and badged as ‘Supertecs’, that were used by Benetton, Williams, BAR and Arrows.
He also developed his business interests outside Formula One, setting up the Billionaire brand in 1998 which now includes a club in Sardinia, a sportswear and accessories range and now a haute couture line for men ‘Billionaire Italian Couture’.
In 2000 Renault revealed its plans to return to Formula One – it would supply engines to Benetton in 2001 and take over the team entirely in 2002. It named Briatore the managing director of Renault Sport UK and the Italian returned to the F1 paddock.
The new Schumacher
He also turned his hand to driver management. In 2001 he ran Mark Webber as Renault’s test driver while financing the Australian’s Formula 3000 season. The next year he moved Webber to Minardi and brought another of his drivers, Fernando Alonso, to be Renault’s test driver.
The teenage Alonso had introduced himself to Briatore in 1999 at Briatore’s house. He said: “I wanted [Alonso] to get acclimatised to the differences between a small and a large F1 team. The guy was so cool, he never complained, not once. He was mature enough to handle the challenge.”
In 2003 he promoted Alonso to the full race team, saying: “We decided to go for Fernando because we think he has something special. He already knows the circuits after a year at Minardi in 2001. I don’t think he will need long to get to grips with the team and start performing.”
Indeed he did not. By the second round Alonso had become the youngest ever pole sitter, then scored his first victory at the Hungaroring, becoming the youngest ever race winner. Renault’s success was thanks in part to Briatore’s unconventional thinking – they were the most prominent team that year to make use of the dispensation allowing them to run a car on Friday mornings, which gave them extra development time.
Briatore also took control of the engine development at Viry-Chatillon in France that year, and in 2004 Renault won another race when Jarno Trulli triumphed at Monte-Carlo. But Briatore dropped his fellow Italian before the end of the season and brought another of his countrymen to replace him – Giancarlo Fisichella.
Back to the front
In 2005 Renault and tyre supplier Michelin reacted perfectly to new regulation banning tyre stops, and produced a championship-winning car. Renault took both titles, with Alonso winning the drivers’ championship with two races to spare. But at the end of the year Briatore once again faced the defection of a protege – Alonso signed to drive for season-long rivals McLaren in 2007.
Nonetheless Renault won both titles again in 2006, despite a fraught and often controverisal battle with Briatore’s former charge Schumacher and his Ferrari team. When Renault was banned from using its mass damper suspension system mid-way through 2006, Briatore blamed Mclaren and Ferrari for lobbying the FIA to have it banned.
Briatore’s ongoing rivalry with McLaren’s Ron Dennis bubbled to the surface the following year when McLaren were investigated for allegedly obtaining Ferrari’s intellectual property rights. He said: “Ron Dennis was the one who protested us on the mass damper. He is not the immaculate saint he pretends to be on his statements.”
Having lost Alonso to McLaren for 2007, Briatore promoted Finn Heikki Kovalainen to the race team, saying: “With Kovalainen I hope to find the anti-Alonso.”
It didn’t work out that way – by the end of the year both Fisichella and Kovalainen were gone. Alonso left McLaren under a cloud and returned to be partnered by another Renault Development Driver, Nelson Piquet Jnr.
Within a year and a half the Piquet deal had turned sour – only this time, with a sting in the tail for Briatore. Piquet was dropped by the team after the German Grand Prix in 2009 but two rounds later, at the Belgian Grand Prix, rumours surfaced that Piquet had made allegations about Renault.
He told the FIA that he was instructed by Briatore and director of engineering Pat Symonds to crash his car during the Singapore Grand Prix in 2008 in order to help Alonso. Briatore refuted the charges to begin with but on September 16th Renault announced it would not oppose the charges and that Briatore and Symonds had left the team.
The FIA tried to ban in from motor racing indefinitely. But Briatore successfully overturned the decision when he submitted an appeal to the French courts.
Sport and business
He may not have come into F1 from traditional roots, but he won admirers among the other team principals. Frank Williams said of him: “Flavio is not a racing man, but he always makes the right decisions.”
In the ongoing discussions over the future direction of Formula One Briatore has often made plain his feelings that it should be less a technical exercise and more about entertainment. In 1994 he said: “All the team owners are orientated towards the technical side rather than the entertainment side, and this is a big fault. Every meeting that I go to, people are talking about pistons and suspensions. Nobody goes to a race to see that kind of thing… People come to see Schumacher and Senna racing each other.”
Briatore’s flamboyant lifestyle has kept him in the public eye – he has been seen dating several models including Naomi Campbell, Adriana Volpe and Heidi Klum. Although he is now estranged from Klum the pair have a daughter who was born in May 2004.
Today his business empire includes the Billionaire brand plus a beach club in Tuscany and a Kenyan resort called Lion in the Sun. He opened a restaurant called Cipriani’s in Mayfair in 2004 and runs the Pierrel pharmaceutical company. In 2007 he was linked with a takeover of English Championship (i.e. second division) football club QPR at around the same time Ecclestone expressed an interested in another London football team, Arsenal.