lie is the mystery man of Formula One, yet behind the scenes he has the car of the leaders sign and wields ificant
if it knows anything at all of him, the general public is more cognisant of events around him than it is of the personality of Flavio Briatore.
Last year he made national newspaper headlines when at 3. I 7am on Wednesday February 10 a bomb blew away part of the front door of his elegant Grade 11 listed pad in Cadogan Place, Belgravia. Though the IRA claimed responsibility for that, cynics within the world of racing smiled at suggestions that a terrorist, believing himself to be under police scrutiny, happened to ditch his explosive outside the house of the man regarded as one of the leading powerbrokers in Formula One.
There was publicity, too, over a spat with former lover Giovanna Amati, the fiery Italian racing driver who later became Niki Lauda's paramour. Part of their separation is said to have involved her slashing most of his clothes. (He has a lot, as a recent guided tour of his new flat in Cheyne Walk revealed).
Another girlfriend, model Christina Estrada, has since picked up with Sun City mogul Sol Kerzner. The Formula One world is, largely, unsure how to take the Italian with his grey hair, deep tan, smooth manner and a voice that fires words like machine gun bullets. He makes no bones that he is first of all a businessman, second a racer. That does not sit well with many of his peers, all of whom have been in the sport for aeons. On the surface he is affability itself, voluble, elegant and a perfect host. But he has won
as many enemies as friends since he appeared on the scene back in 1989, to take control of the Benetton family's interest in its eponymous racing team.
Former employees either speak disdainfully of him, or smile at memories of his sense of humour and general urbanity. Some frown when recollecting their business dealings. It is said that, when accosted by Italian journalists in Hungary last year while leaving the race long before team driver Riccardo Patrese took an overdue place on the rostrum, he replied: 'I have no interest in watching him finish second.' Certainly, the list of test drivers who have passed through Benetton's doors in recent months bears testimony to high pressure turnover, while Johnny Herbert and Roberto Moreno have little cause to recall him with any fondness. Flavio Briatore has no place for sentiment. The Briton was sacked. together with mentor and former Benetton director Peter Collins, because he was not deemed fit enough in 1989 as he recovered from his Brands Hatch accident the previous year. This despite a fourth place in Brazil on his Fl debut, and a fifth in Phoenix. And despite the fact that replacement Emanuele Pirro proved lamentably unable to achieve similar performances. Moreno was summarily despatched when Briatore saw the chance to grab an emergent Michael Schumacher from Jordan. Just as Edmund felt the venom of Briatore's cobra-fast strike, so Ron Dennis had cause for dismay in January when Briatore snaffled Jos Verstappen right from under the McLaren boss'
nose and signed him to a long-term deal.
None of this bothers Briatore, any more than the bomb appeared to upset his equilibrium. IRA or not, some believed it to be a gentle reminder from associates with whom he was having financial dealings. Just as another Fl czar is said to derive secret amusement from the unfounded rumours connecting him to the Great Train Robbery, so Bria tore does not seem to take umbrage at similar rumours linking him to one of his country's more notorious organisations.
He is a paradox, but his commitment to the Benetton cause in Formula One cannot be questioned. He works hard, and he works his people hard, and he is pragmatic enough to surround himself with able lieutenants who are experts in their own areas. Benetton might well have risen to its present position of eminence anyway, but there is no gainsaying the dramatic progress it has made since he stepped aboard. 1990 and 1991 could be deemed his learning years, but when key elements such as John Barnard as Design Director, Tom Walkinshaw as Director of Engineering and Schumacher as lead driver were added to the mix to complement stalwarts such as Rory Byrne, things really began to move ahead. With better fortune the German might have finished runner-up to Alain Prost last year in the car that Byrne and Ross Brawn created; this season he and Briatore are determined to carry the fight to Ayrton Senna and Williams-Renault. Briatore clearly has strong feelings towards Schumacher. Ask him what he
could offer him that Ron Dennis apparently couldn't when the latter approached the German last year, and he replies laconically: "My beauty!" Then he gets more serious. "I tell you, if I win the World Championship with Michael Schumacher, Benetton wins the World Championship. But if I win the World Championship with Ayrton Senna, Ayrton Senna wins the World Championship. it's as simple as that."
He tried to interest Senna in driving for Benetton once, but was appalled at the figures the Brazilian quoted. "For me the team is important, because we have 200 people working to make the car. When you see the grid on television it's funny. Senna, Schumacher, blah, blah. But never do you think how many people are behind the products. The car is the product. You have 200 people in the factory, arriving at eight o'clock in the morning, leaving at midnight, one o'clock. Nobody knows their names, but they are the people doing the job. Sure, the driver does the final result, but he is not alone."
He also has strong feelings on the subject of driver remuneration. "It's not that the drivers make too much money; because if you offer somebody $5M, they'll take it. I never blame the driver. I blame the team manager, and sometimes I blame the cigarette companies.
"I tell you, you buy the little lion, he's very cute. He's like a little cat or a little dog. But one day he grows up and then he eats you. He's dangerous!
"This is what I believe. I believe that the drivers need to make money because the job is quite risky, but I tell you, some other jobs are much more risky. If you are in Bosnia at this moment, is more risk than driving a Formula One car. Should the Bosnian people not make $10M, $15M?
"This is philosophy, of course. If you don't have a good driver, you never know the limits of your car. You need always the package; good car, good team, good driver. But you always need to stay with your foot on the ground. In Formula One people talk of a million dollars like it is the easy way. But a million dollars is a million. A lot of people work for generations to make just one million dollars." In fact, he believes that money was
one of the reasons why McLaren eventually beat Benetton in the race for second place last year. "You know, I lose 20 points in two races. Maybe Ron Dennis' offer to Michael Schumacher hurt me a lot, because Michael in the last two races could see dollar signs in his eyes."
Schumacher is known to be on a 'tight' contract with Benetton, but just how much was Ronzo offering? Briatore laughs heartily. "The figure is so big, if I told you I'd need two Cognacs! But I'm sure it distracted him. Everybody is a human being. He stays because he loves me! Michael and Benetton are the family. He can grow with us. He remembers, too, the kind of risk I took when 1 put him in the car. I remember in Monza when the judge locked my garage when I fired Moreno. He told us we couldn't race because the car was for Moreno, and I had a lot of trouble. I had a little bit of a fight with my friend Eddie, but Michael is very human and doesn't forget what I did for him. And he arrived in Formula One with the right programme. Sure, the offer Ron Dennis put to him was a little bit distracting. But for me what is important is the result: Michael Schumacher is at Benetton and not at McLaren. "You know, it's impossible to keep a driver in your team if the driver doesn't want to drive for you. With any contract. It's possible you sign the best contract, but if
the driver is not committed to the team 100 percent, it is impossible. It's the same with the Technical Director. What do you do? Go! You know, a contract is very important to outline points, but after that, forget it."
Curiously, he is one of the few willing to admit to cutting back on budget, and displays an endearing candour. "I believe the fruits of the reduction of technology, because I've seen already them this year. My budget is already less than the year before! But if the rules are the same for everybody, I don't see a difference. This year I don't think it will be much closer, because you still have four or five top teams and the money makes a difference.
"Put it like this. Every year I have a 20 percent increase on my budget. This year I don't have this kind of increase. For me we are already saving 20 percent. Historically, the last five years, every year I have had a 15, 20 percent increase in my budget. So for me already, that is a good result." If Briatore has no stars in his eyes, he also has some trenchant views on the current state of Formula One, and the way it is developing. Having worked for two years with Barnard, he is complimentary of his ability. "I believe he is one of the best designers in Formula One. But I believe too that the concept of technology has changed. There is no more one-man band operating the team. I believe that the concept Benetton has at this moment is very democratic and very good. You can't have a one-man band any more, because there are financial complications, you have commercial complications, you have technical complications. Even if you have 20 hours in a day you can't make it You need to have nice people around you, you need to give the
people next to you the possibility to grow, and responsibility.
"Sure, Barnard is a fantastic designer, but it's not only the designer; you're talking about engine, global package, drivers.
You're talking about emotion. It's quite complicated."
During the winter there were a lot of stories connecting Briatore with an attempt to buy Ligier, to gain control of its Renault engines. He's been expecting the question, of course, and laughs when it comes. "I need a Cognac to explain that! Okay, Ligier is nothing to do with engines. It was my idea that in Formula One you need colonised money. I believe that with two teams you have space for saving money in both teams.
"I'll tell you an easy example. Ron Dennis sold the automatic gearbox to Footwork, and I have the same deal with Larrousse. "And my idea always is that in Formula One the top constructors need to sell or have the possibility to sell their cars to the small teams. Why not? Because I'm sure
that if they went to sponsors and said that next year they'd be running a 1993 Benetton or McLaren, it would be better for them. You need to consolidate for 10 or 15 teams. I believe that the only way to consolidate is to have the four top constructors, and after that you have a second team. But the second team doesn't need 80 people or 90 people. You need 35 people to go racing."
Some time ago he went a long way down a path investigating the purchase of Minardi, and at another time was believed to have been a party interested in acquiring Tyrrell. At the time of our dinner he was open about his plans to bring Ligier to England. The reasons are profoundly practical. "That would be the idea, yes, because in England you have the best engineering, the bestenvironment,thebesteverything.It'slikeif you like, if you want to make the prosciutto, you go to Italy. If you want to make champagne, you go to France. If you want to make Formula One, you are in England. You
know, I don't like your weather here, but I stop in this country only because you are competitive. British engineering is the best in the world. And it's very difficult to move the British to Italy, or the British to France." Since then the deal has all but been agreed, but though the engineering side will come to Britain under Walkinshaw's control, the race team will remain in France.
Currently Benetton has a contract with Ford that runs to the end of the year, and despite the Ligier/Renault link, Benetton's name has also been linked very strongly with an Audi entry to Grand Prix racing. It is now believed that Briatore will replace Ford with Renault at Benetton and run the Audi at Ligier. Ford's longtime partner Cosworth is developing a VIO for Audi.
Briatore, unlike many Fl team proprietors, does not shy away from questions on such subjects, although clearly he withholds much information.
"This is important," he says in immediate response. "I will talk with anybody who is interested in coming into Formula One. You know, the more constructors who arrive in Formula One, the stronger it becomes. I talk with German, Japanese, Italian manufacturers. If you're in this business, you need to know what's going on. I still believe that to have a very healthy Formula One, you need to have a constructor with a team. Because if you start to pay for an engine, already 40 percent of your budget is tied up. Meaning that you don't have the money to develop the car, to do the r&d or whatever. We need more Audi, more BMW, more Toyota." He deprecates suggestions that Schumacher is getting restless without Renault power to take him closer to Senna, that
he has only the second best engine in Fl in 1994. Briatore's response gives another insight into his character. "It's like this. When you have 20 girls, you say, this, number one, is the most beautiful. Number two is like number one, and much nicer looking than number 19. This is the way you need to think about it. Michael has the second best engine in Formula One, at the moment, but I believe last year that the Benetton car was one of the best chassis in Formula One."
Perhaps more than the majority of his rivals, Briatore has the businessman's pragmatism, which is illustrated by his response to refuelling in 1994. "In the beginning I was very excited by it," he admits readily, "because when you have a car go into the pits you know when it goes in, but you don't know when it comes out! I could see some teams having problems with that . . . "But now I don't think that refuelling is the right decision, because of the complication that you have. I see this monster of a machine that you have to carry around the world, it's like a battleship. Initially I was very pro to refuelling because I believed it would increase the show, if you like, but now I am much cooler than that because
when you see this machine that you carry round for nine months it's something quite heavy. If I had the possibility to go back, I wouldn't want refuelling."
The idea of refuelling is to improve the overall show, to render Fl less predictable, but Briatore has another suggestions. "I tell you something crazy: Change the grid, like in the skiing. So the man on pole position starts at the back. And you give the same points in qualifying that you do in the race. So Friday, Saturday you decide the
pole position; Senna, Schumacher, bang, bang. 10 points to the guy on pole, nine, eight. Sunday you start the race on the reversed grid. If you win the race you get 10 points. "If you had a reverse grid . . . you know, one day Minardi has a chance to start from pole position! It's good for the sponsor. it's good for him. Sure, after 20 laps he's
history, but . " Ah, a touch of the ruthlessness creeping out?
"You know, our business is very flat sometimes," he continues easily. "You need to give it more emotion for the 150 million people watching it. This way is good for the little teams, they get seen on television for a while; you know, 80 percent of the teams never get seen on television. You need to decide; does Formula One need four teams, or 13/14?"
It's difficult to see McLaren or Williams falling over backwards with delight at that idea, and he agrees. "Yeah, but it's a different way to see Formula One. I'm not against technology, I'm very happy about technology. But in Benetton's philosophy, Formula One is an Event. You know, you guys aren't coming to Estoril to see our piston. You're coming to Estoril to see the fight between Senna and Schumacher, like the 150 million people who are watching I believe that the people watching on television are not interested at all about what type of suspension Ferrari or Benetton have. When you have that many people watching, you need to give the right programme.
"You know, the world changes. Twenty years ago you didn't have the television. You'd go to see the race, and there'd be 60,000 people. That was your public. Now you have the television, you have the communication. The world changed. I know that some of my colleagues would like to go to Silverstone, close the door, no media in sight, no spectators, and go racing together. But if I like doing that, I buy one car, 1 race it by myself. I don't race it with 200 people and a $50M budget. I believe that Formula One is a very technical business, but entertainment is important too. "When I go to see a sponsor I tell them Benetton is one of the most colourful teams. Nobody asks me what kind of suspension will you have next year? They say what kind of package do you have? What kind of marketing? You need to decide what
you want in life. And it's very difficult now to judge the old-style management in Formula One and the new style. But I believe that television has changed our business."
The others are of course already using television to the maximum for themselves . . .
"Yeah, but maybe somebody forgot the income. You have 200 people building one product. The product is two cars. To finance the product you need somebody from the outside, because you don't sell the product as such. My budget is 550M, but I don't sell one car for $25M, I sell it for $27M, because I need to make a few million dollars too. What do you sell? You sell image, and communication. This is what you sell. You sell a dream in Formula One, if you want. You sell a package. I never see a cheque on my desk for technology. I never see somebody put something on my desk and say, 'You're so wonderful, you're so nice. You have this current technology, here's a hundred thousand pounds.' Never!
"What is the future? I don't care about the past. The past was different. Benetton is in Formula One because it's global communication. Worldwide. "You have the Olympics, they happen every four years. You have the Superbowl in America, for the people eating the popcorn. Finish. And you have Formula One. Formula One is the mix of power, speed, human beings fighting together. Noise. Lifestyle. This is what the people you see know in Formula One. I don't see so many know about active suspension. I never see your guys come to me and say, 'Your active
eds bf the man: Briatore the sportsman (below,
ing football and tennis with a passion) and Briatore profiler (far right, with George Harrison in Adelaide I year).
system is so beautiful!'
"When we have these meetings, everyone talks about technical, technical, technical. Nobody talks about improving our business."
Naturally the top teams such as Williams and McLaren will do whatever they have to to protect their interests, after dominating for the last 10 years. Some of Briatore's ambition surfaces as he retorts: "Benetton is a very good example. Talking about the fight between Benetton and McLaren: when I arrived in Formula One, for me McLaren was god. It was something impossible to touch. When I saw Ron Dennis, he was a second god. He was like Senna, you know. Last year 1 was in front of him 80 percent of the time. He won more races than me. Talking about the spirit. I had been in Formula One four years. Meaning, this technology is not so difficult. If one lousy tee-shirt team, like Benetton was called when I arrived, can beat these established people . . .
"When I arrived in Formula One I had Brabham, Lotus, Minardi, Ferrari . . . everybody ahead of me. And for me it was a dream one day to beat Ferrari. Benetton was very colourful, this guy with long hair ran it. Fine. But technology is not so difficult. It's more difficult communicating that technology."
He does not necessarily wish to see Frank Williams and Ron Dennis come round to his way of thinking, however. "Oh no! I don't want that, because I don't want them enjoying Formula One more! I want Ron staying in the same position!"
Within Formula One some mistakenly believe that Briatore is being groomed by Bernie Ecclestone to take over if he ever feels like stepping down. Briatore denies, however, that he has any interest in such a role (even though he has, as humorists point out, taken over Bernie's former flat). "I don't want Bernie's job. You know what? haven't arrived from a mechanic's background, okay? I'm a businessman. I don't want to be stuck in Formula One for 25 years, because I'm not interested at all. But I see Formula One from the business point of view. I believe the potential is very, very strong. And maybe we use 20 percent of that potential. And plus, I believe that Bernie is doing a fantastic job, and he is a good friend of mine. We have dinner together and we talk about everything but Formula One.
"No way would I want his job. I run Benetton. I don't think long-term. I will stay in Formula One as long as I have fun. When I still wake up in the morning and feel excitement, and go into the office and keep fighting. The moment it's just business dayby-day, I'm not interested." Indeed, he goes so far as to quantify how
long he'll he'll stay. "If I don't win the World Championship between now and '96. I need to change my job because it will mean I'm not good enough to do my job. There is no deadline from the Benetton family, but there is one from myself and that's it. If I don't win by then. I stop."
If Formula One is indeed only operating at 20 per cent, what does he see as the potential that's not being realised?
"There are some situations in the world that can never be created again. I believe Benetton is one of them, because I don't believe anyone can recreate that story. Nobody can recreate what Bernie has done in the last 20 years. But I believe everybody is orientated in the technical side and nobody is orientated in the event side. It is a big stop for Formula One. "I'm in it for four years it's five really, but the first year I was not pregnant completely. I was only four months pregnant! and every meeting we are talking about peace, we are talking about suspension. Nobody is talking about our business. It's very, very technical, and I'm not sure that the people watching us want that. People want to see the fight between drivers, I tell you. I believe
that the big companies will be interested in coming to Formula One, if you have the stable rules. To save money. you need stability. Because you give the big sponsor the possibility to arrive in Formula One. Now, everybody anticipates a big fight when we arrive in Brazil, and that is no good at all for us. I'm sure it won't be a big fight, because at the end of the day everybody is very professional in Formula One and will decide to follow the rules. But what you need in Formula One is stability.''
Suggest that that sounds like IndyCars or NASCAR, and he is as dismissive as one would expect of an Fl personality. "They are very American. I mean, you press guys are talking about whether the Ferrari is legal, whether the Benetton is legal, because the rules aren't completely clear. It's the interpretation of the rules. It's very difficult. I still believe that you need very clear rules, for everybody the same. "You know, each team can find EIOM a year, because if you talk with Jordan or Lotus that is what they have. I believe is very easy well, not easy. because nothing is easy but this kind of money can be found. But when you talk about f.20M, £25M . . . For this always you have the gap. You know, when I started in Formula One my budget
was S6M . . . This was the budget of Benetton before I arrive."
In a way, of course, he is trying to have his cake and eat it. On the one hand there is the call to get rid of the technology, so that the driver plays a more important role, but then he is saying that the drivers should not be paid fortunes commensurate with their talent; yet it would be the driver that then made the difference . . .
"Okay!" he says, with slight exasperation.
"Last year was the big technology, somebody made $20M. This is chicken and eggs, you know? A driver made $20M . . . "
Ask him how he would place a ceiling on driver salaries, and some of the arrogance that his rivals so detest begins to show through. "There are four people who decide in Formula One. Frank Williams, Ron Dennis, Flavio Briatore and lean Todt. If myself and Jean Todt have dinner here, I believe we fix the price. You know, fixing the price is quite easy. The trouble is, everybody in Formula One is very individualistic. The best thing would be for us all to get on Monday to Friday, then say: 'Okay, let's go fight.' And on Monday we sit together again and decide what is the best way to develop Formula One." Ironically, at the end of 1993 he actually wanted to keep the very technology that he professes to detest, and a little bit of the politician seeps out when he responds to mention of the fact. "Wait, wait, wait! What I tried doing, what I thought then, was that it was cheaper to keep what you have. Simple
as that. Plus, I tell you, I am very flexible. If I see today 1 make a mistake, 1 tell you guys, 'Okay, I make a mistake.' And we change. I have the responsibility of a big company. And I change. If I see I put a mistake, I'm very honest. I say 1 screwed up and we change. 1 don't believe in saying, 'I told you in 1952. and now. . . ' None of that. If you are doing business, you need that flexibility."
Despite his misgivings about the direction Fl is taking, Briatore says he is happy enough under the leadership of FIA President Max Mosley, although a little contradiction is evident in his comments. On the one hand he says: "You need to understand that Formula One is handled by the teams. If the FIA has the power, it's because the teams are rich. Simple as that. It's the teams doing the show, the teams doing the business. "1 agree with Max, because Max at one point put the point, only because the teams were very weak. If there is agreement between the teams, you need nobody." (Our
Then, when you remind him that it is, after all, the FIA's Championship in the first place, not the teams', he replies (our italics again): "Yeah. You need always to have somebody, you know. It's like any other business. Now we have Max Mosley as our President. I believe that Max is doing a very good job. He's easy to talk with, and every time Max makes one decision, he makes it because the teams don't have the capacity to make the decision by themselves. It's like the school; you know, you are in the school and you have 20 students, everybody screaming; the teacher arrives and says, 'Right now, everybody shut up!' And this is what Max does.
"You know, every time the teams sit down and talk, it's very emotional. We need to sit down and talk about the best way to do business, but instead it's very emotional."
At the beginning of 1993, when Frank Williams hit a ball into the rough, it was Briatore who broke ranks and initially refused to agree that Williams could enter the World Championship after the official closing date. At the time is was an act that was deemed grossly unsporting, but there was reason behind it.
"1 stopped Frank Williams from entering because the only way to make somebody listen to me was to stop somebody.
"Everything was very emotional, and I believe that sometimes when you make the decision to save money, you end up spending more. What you need is the top teams working together to make the best solution. To find a realistic point of view, not an emotional point of view. What we need to do is calm down a little bit, and realise what our business is."
Ever since he came to Formula One he has been implacably opposed to the requirement for unanimity within the terms of the much-criticised Concorde Agreement, but predictably he is well versed in the art of manipulating it to the best effect for himself and Benetton.
"Never do I agree with that part of the Agreement, because I have never seen any company make a decision with 100 percent of the vote. Everybody tries to explain this, but to me it is completely wrong. I've tried to change it, but I am alone . . But alone, if you want, I blackmail everybody else. I have more power alone if it is not a democratic decision. If everyone says yes, I say no, stop everybody. I still don't understand this power. Bernie has tried to explain it to me many times, but I still don't understand." Flavio Briatore has thrown open his flat for the evening, and been an entertaining host over dinner. We have been given that curious guided tour (when was the last time your platonic friends let alone business acquaintances showed you the contents of their bedroom?) and we have had our chance to admire the rococo decor, the carved busts and the marble pillars, the monogrammed pillow cases and napkins. Appreciated once again his love for falsebook wallpaper (just like the stuff he has in the cupboards in his office at the Enstone factory). Given one's natural suspicion that s aroused whenever an F I figure invites you o dinner at his home (an event as rare as 'ootwork victories), it is an unusual evenng, but not at all unpleasant. The atmo
;phere is cordial in the word's truest sense, and the humour is as dry as the white wine. And you have to admit that Briatore has some refreshing ideas on the way the sport should head. I found myself agreeing with many of them. But you also have in the back of your mind the speedy way nuisances such as Herbert, Collins and Moreno were tipped into the skip. This is a man with a very strongly developed sense of self-image, who does not do anything by halves. In his early Forties, he plays tennis and football as hard as Schumacher does at 25, but little is known about his past. Look at all the in his
photographs in his apartment and there are many: Briatore with King Hussein; Briatore with Ecclestone; Briatore with Gary Hart; none shows him before he came into Fl. We know little of his background, save the well-worn stories. Benetton 's own magazine says he was born and raised in Cuneo, the son of a teacher. It's said that he worked for Benetton in America before moving into Fl as the team's Commercial Director in 1989. Two years later came promotion. According to Benetton's gushing profile, 'The Benetton family, their initial trust in Briatore fulfilled, rewarded their long-time friend for his expert management skills by naming him Managing Director in 1991: "You know," he says, justifying the need
he sees for change, "the Wall in Berlin doesn't exist any more. In Russia there is no more Gorbachev. But in Formula One it is still the same people. It's all good stuff, but Briatore's peers
have heard this sort of hyperbole before. As one of them pointed out recently: "We've seen a few people like him come and go over the years, haven't we? And I don't think it does him any good to knock the sport, to knock the people who have come up through it. So Ron Dennis started as a mechanic. So what? I was a secondhand car dealer. So what? I'm not going to pretend I was born the son of Lord So and So, and that I went to Eton. These people are the backbone of Formula One, because they are racers. That's what they do. They go fast at whatever they do. And what they have done has made it possible for people like him to walk in..."
Businessman or racer? Time may tell, if Flavio Briatore sticks around long enough. DI T