Updated: Feb 14
Of all the colourful characters and high rollers to ever grace the F1 paddock, none have been quite as vibrant as Flavio Briatore. He was a figure impossible to miss – a silver fox with a tangerine tan and trademark blue shades, complete with an appetite for supermodels and a Machiavellian attitude towards pitlane politics. Briatore was never far from controversy in his twenty-year career as a team principal, one which yielded four drivers' championships and four constructors titles. Eventually, the Italian would push his luck too far, earning himself a lifetime ban from the sport. Not that he would go quietly…
By Craig Toone | Images as credited
Winning at all costs was an understatement for Flavio Briatore, who frequently employed underhand tactics to gain even the smallest advantage. Whatever your stance on the man, you cannot deny he got results – his fledgling Benneton team was the only one to break the Ferrari-Williams duopoly on the championship during the ’90s, with his ruthless streak often overshadowing a shrewd eye for a driver with the right stuff – his talent-spotting roll call includes nonother than Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, whilst quickly casting aside those who did not make the grade.
That Briatore employed such methods at all should come as no surprise, for he already came into F1 sporting a chequered past. Born on the 12th of April, 1950 in Verzuolo, Italy to primary school teachers, Briatore failed state school twice before graduating from a private institution with the bare minimum of grades. But whatever the enterprising young Flavio lacked in classroom application, he made up for in street smarts, working as a ski instructor before opening his own restaurant – Tribula – which closed due to excessive debt. Briatore tried his hand as a door-to-door insurance salesman before finding work as the assistant to Attilio Dutto, owner of the Paramatti Vernici paint company. Dutto was killed on 21 March 1979 in a car bomb attack by unknown perpetrators, but the method of execution was the calling card of La Cosa Nostra. It quickly emerged that Dutto was bankrupt and Briatore’s involvement in his business affairs would lead to his arrest on several counts of fraud.
Briatore and Luciano Benetton
During the prosecution, Briatore moved to Milan and worked as a stockbroker, making the acquaintance of Luciano Benetton, founder of the Benetton clothing company. Briatore racked up more arrests via a series of confidence scams and the courts eventually sentenced him to four and a half years in prison, reduced to fourteen months on appeal. Preferring the idea of an exotic paradise to the prospect of time behind bars, Briatore fled to the Virgins Islands and lived in exile as a fugitive. During this time Briatore retained his contact with Benetton, who placed him in charge of franchising the fashion brand throughout the United States. The chain expanded from an initial five stores to over 800 by 1989 thanks to the duo’s acumen, earning Briatore immense wealth in the process. Flavio would eventually return to the EU after quashing his convictions via amnesty, having never spent a day in prison.
The move into Formula One was at the behest of Benetton, although perhaps it was inevitable that the glamour of F1 would attract a man of Briatore's bravado. Luciano had acquired the Toleman team but Briatore had displayed little interest in the sport, attending his first Grand Prix in Australia in 1988. Benetton asked his friend to become the team's commercial director, eventually promoting him to team principal. Once coronated Briatore wasted little time in making his mark, firing the last remaining members of the Toleman management structure. He hired and then fired chief engineer John Barnard, replacing him with Tom Walkinshaw before setting his sights on snatching Michael Schumacher from Jordan in 1991, plotting to build the entire team around him. The gamble paid off – Schumacher won at Spa in 1992, then again at Estoril in 1993. 1994 would prove to be the breakout year, Schumacher claiming the drivers' championship.
Briatore and Michael Schumacher enjoyed a close relationship
Success brought greater scrutiny and the first of several allegations of cheating began to emerge. The FIA had banned several electronic aids for the ‘94 season in order to slow the escalating pace of the cars and place greater emphasis on driver ability. These included traction control, power brake, anti-lock brakes and active suspension. Refueling was also reintroduced. Murmurs of discontent surfaced straight away after the first round in Brazil. Ayrton Senna had been leading the race on lap 21 with Schumacher close behind. They both pitted and the German emerged ahead after a faster stop, going on to win the race, leading to accusations of misconduct.
SUCCESS BROUGHT GREATER SCRUTINY AND SEVERAL ALLEGATIONS OF CHEATING EMERGED
Later on in the season, a fire during a pit stop for Benneton number two driver Jos Verstappen led to an investigation. The fuel nozzle had not properly sealed, and Verstappen plus four mechanics suffered minor burns. The report found evidence of a ‘foreign body’ in the fuel valve plus the removal of an anti-fire filter, the result being fuel flowed into the tanks approximately 12.5% faster, saving around one second per pitstop. Benneton laid the blame on equipment manufacturer Intertechnique, responsible for supplying standardised fuel rigs for all the teams. Summoned to a hearing, Briatore argued that all but four teams had removed the filter from their rig, and the night before it emerged that Larrousse, one of the teams, had been instructed by Intertechnique to remove the filter. Benneton was found guilty of the offense but escaped any punishment in mitigation of these developments.
Playing with fire - the removal of a filter saved one second per pit stop
But it was the tragic deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola that brought the bigger controversy to light. Senna was convinced several teams were still utilizing the benefits of traction control, and after the race, the FIA demanded the top three finishing teams submit their engine management systems for review. Ferrari handed over their code immediately, but both Benetton and McLaren submitted theirs after the FIA deadline. Benetton’s excuse was ECU supplier Cosworth’s ownership of the intellectual property on the system, who withheld their permission. Both teams were fined $100,000. The FIA would discover the existence of traction and launch control ‘hidden’ within the code of the Benneton ECU, but since they could not find any evidence of its use, Benneton astonishingly got off scot-free, arguing only its deployment and not existence contravened the rules.
In the weeks following Imola, the governing body introduced new emergency regulations to reduce downforce and thus slow the cars down, but several teams suffered from issues as the hastily developed components placed stress on parts not previously designed to cope with being loaded. There were further high-speed crashes. A feud broke out between FIA president Max Mosley and Briatore, who accused the FIA of incompetence. Neither man would back down and the row continued throughout the season.
Many accusations were leveled at Benetton for using traction control
One of these measures was known as the ‘plank’ – a piece of wood attached to the underside of the car to raise the ride height thus reducing downforce, whilst also monitoring for excessive wear. The rules stated the plank must be a regulation 10mm, with an allowance of one for wear. After the Belgian Grand Prix, Schumacher’s car clocked in at 7.4mm, 1.6 under tolerance. Both Benetton and Schumacher pointed to a spin by the German as an explanation, but nevertheless, Schumacher was disqualified.
The driver aids conflict reared its head again after the French GP. Schumacher qualified third, but overtook both Williams drivers – Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill – before the first corner, raising suspicions Benneton used launch control. Briatore then employed his box of dirty tricks at the British GP. Schumacher had qualified second, but overtook Damon Hill on the parade lap, earning himself a five-second penalty, which he was ordered to serve on lap 21 by the stewards. But Schumacher was instructed to ignore the black flag whilst Briatore stalled and discussed the incident with the race directors. Schumacher eventually served the penalty on lap 28, allowing him to finish second and collect six points. Post-race, another inquiry was opened, where this time it was the race stewards who came under fire from Benetton, who admitted wrongdoing but not before highlighting the time taken to inform Benetton of Schumacher’s infringement, which was 27 minutes –outside the allotted fifteen.
SCHUMACHER WAS DISQUALIFIED AND BANNED FOR TWO RACES. HE STILL WON THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP, BUT THE MOUNTING ACCUSATIONS CLEARLY IRKED THE GERMAN
The verdict of the inquiry was a $500,000 fine for Benneton and a $25,000 one for Schumacher, whilst also handing out another disqualification. Schumacher was also banned for two races, a decision which he appealed but was ultimately unsuccessful, missing the Italian and Portuguese races. In the end, it didn’t matter – Schumacher still won the championship, but the rumours of cheating clearly irked the German. He stayed with Benetton for the 1995 season, winning again before signing for Ferrari alongside most of the engineering staff. Without his superstar driver, Briatore struggled to re-build and was replaced by Dave Richards for 1997.
Flavio would return in the year 2000 at the behest of Renault, who had purchased the Benetton F1 team. During his downtime, Briatore took on the role of manager to a young Spanish driver by the name of Fernando Alonso, engineering him a drive at Minardi. He then switched him to Renault as test driver, before sacking the popular Jenson Button and giving the seat to Alonso. Briatore's gamble paid off, the Spaniard winning the back-to-back drivers titles in 2005 & 2006. This time it was McLaren, not Ferrari, who came calling for Briatore's prized asset. Not to worry, for he'd added a growing stable of drivers in Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli, Nelson Piquet Jnr and Heikki Kovalainen to his management roster. None of them quite hit the mark for Renault however, and those who couldn’t deliver were shown little loyalty.
Briatore had a keen eye for talent and remains close to Fernando Alonso
The next scandal to engulf Formula One reared its head in 2007 and was centered around corporate espionage, better known as Spygate. McLaren were the main perpetrators, caught in possession of detailed technical information of the Ferrari race car, but naturally, Briatore was in the thick of it, voicing accusations against the McLaren team principal Ron Dennis. Initially, McLaren escaped punishment before new information came to light and the FIA re-opened its investigation, handing out an unprecedented $100 million fine and banning the team from the constructors' championship.
It later emerged that Alonso was the source of the new information, disclosed in a series of emails to the FIA. Alonso was unsettled at his new team and had failed to tame the raw pace of a certain wunderkind rookie by the name of Lewis Hamilton - his relationship with Dennis becoming fractured in the process. Alonso left McLaren at the end of the season and Briatore welcomed him back to Renault with open arms...he was still his manager after all. Yet Renault themselves weren’t innocent in the Spygate, having been supplied information "including, but not limited to the layout and critical dimensions of the McLaren F1 car, together with details of the McLaren fuelling system, gear assembly, oil cooling system, hydraulic control system and a novel suspension component used by the 2006 and 2007 McLaren F1 cars“ according to an FIA statement. But the team and Briatore would escape the same fate as McLaren - despite being found guilty no punishment followed.
IT LATER EMERGED THAT ALONSO WAS THE SOURCE OF THE NEW INFORMATION. BRIATORE WELCOMED HIM BACK TO RENAULT WITH OPEN ARMS
Reunited, the dream duo struggled to recapture their past high so Briatore started to work the angles, searching for a new advantage, one he would employ at the 2008 Singapore GP. With the assistance of chief engineer Pat Symonds, Briatore had calculated the exact moment and corner in the race for number two driver Nelson Piquet Jnr to tactically crash, causing the deployment of the safety car which served to Alonso’s advantage – he took the chequered flag.
Allegations of the race-fixing began to emerge in 2009 after Piquet Jnr’s acrimonious departure from the Renault team. In September the FIA charged Renault with conspiracy and granted Piquet Jnr immunity from punishment in return for his testimony. After leaks of the supplied evidence, Briatore and Symonds threatened legal action against their former driver, but five days later Renault released a statement declaring the team would not contest the charges and both Briatore and Symonds had tendered their resignations. Briatore continued to protest innocence and claimed the resignation was his duty for the good of the team. At the hearing, the FIA banned Briatore for life from all sanctioned events, making an example of the Italian for refusing to admit guilt despite the overwhelming evidence against him. The governing body also refused to grant a Superlicense to any drivers managed by him, effectively ending any involvement with F1. Renault was shown leniency by the FIA due to their swift action after the allegations came to light, receiving a two-year probation sentence – if any similar affairs came the light the team would also suffer a lifetime ban.
Briatore was consistently at loggerheads with FIA President Max Mosley, a fact he used to his advantage on appeal
In 2010 Briatore challenged the FIA ban in the French justice system, arguing his public feud with Max Mosley led to a Kangaroo court. He won the trial, overturning the ban, and was awarded a €15,000 settlement. Perhaps wisely, Briatore opted not to return to the sport, choosing to diversify his business interests, launching his own fashion label and opening a string of nightclubs & restaurants. Briatore treated himself to a 207ft superyacht, which would be seized by the Italian government over tax evasion on VAT for its charter status and fuel duty. The amount owed was estimated at five million euros.
Outside of F1 Briatore continued to live life in the fast lane. In 2008 he married Wonderbra model Elisabetta Gregoraci after previous relationships with Supermodels Naomi Campbell and Heidi Klum. Fernando Alonso was the driver of the bridal car, and the marriage produced a son in 2010 before ending in divorce. Briatore had a daughter with Klum but had no involvement with the child's upbringing as Klum had started a relationship with Seal. In 2009 Briatore allowed the singer to legally adopt his offspring. One of the earlier investments Briatore had made was the ill-fated takeover of Queens Park Rangers football club. Briatore partnered up with F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, becoming the clubs' chairman in 2007.
Briatore wasn't as successful in the English Premier League as F1, but still dominated the headlines
Briatore proved himself to be a volatile boss, chewing through a jaw-dropping ten managers and signing forty-seven players in three years, many of them fading superstars on fat contracts. The FIA ban proved to have far-reaching consequences, putting Briatore at the mercy of the Football Association's ‘fit and proper persons test', meaning another resignation. Briatore was also the orchestrator behind the GP2 series, which quickly established itself as the primary feeder channel for aspiring Formula One drivers. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are both graduates. He sold the rights to the championship in 2010 to CVC, the owners of Formula One.
He may no longer be a feature in the paddock on race day, but his presence is still felt, for sport thrives on its heroes and villains, and no sport attracts pantomime like F1. Briatore remains an outspoken critic of the FIA, singling out the spiralling costs and lack of engagement with the fanbase. He may have a point. Perhaps he will be back before long - he remains the manager of Alonso, touting his services to Renault for the 2020 season. Briatore even starred in the Italian version of the apprentice for two seasons but so far he hasn’t expressed any interest in politics, but don’t rule it out. Where Briatore is involved it seems anything is possible. He certainly has the skillset.