"Spending money is fine, but throwing it away is criminal"

Flavio Briatore has always run a tight ship at Renault, which is why he’s so pleased about the drive to cut costs in F1
By Nigel Roebuck

It was going on 15 years ago that I first interviewed Flavio Briatore, and I asked Bernie Ecclestone for his impressions of the man who had become his fast friend, and remains so to this day, the pair of them partners in a variety of business ventures as diverse as GP2 and QPR.

“Flavio calls the other team principals ‘mechanics’,” said Bernie, “because they’ve come up through the ranks in the racing world. He’s come from the business world, so he hasn’t served an apprenticeship in racing. I’m not saying that’s good or bad; I’m saying it’s different. So maybe he has a different approach from the rest…”

From the outset Briatore indeed had a different approach. I remember running into him at Indianapolis in 2000, where Giancarlo Fisichella had qualified a poor 15th. “Why am I angry?” he said. “Simple. Because Fisichella is f****** lazy!”

Go on, I said. “This is a new track for everyone, and I sent the engineers over – away from the family – two days early. And Fisichella? He arrived two days late, because he was in Hawaii, and the weather was good! I don’t accept that…”

Later I reminded him of that episode. “It’s very simple,” he shrugged. “When we have fun, we have fun, but when we’re working, we need rules. A driver is an employee of the company, and a lot of the result depends on him, but you have hundreds of people working very hard to make things good for him in his job, and these people are not millionaires – they don’t vacation in Hawaii. If a driver damages a car, I don’t really care, but if I see him doing something not correct when it comes to the team effort, to the people working for him, then I get really furious. Eventually I had a good relationship with Fisichella, but…”

No spin here, then, no earnest press releases from Briatore endeavouring to reassure the world that his driver never used the ‘F’ word, or whatever. He has always been one to speak his mind, even when plainly out of sync with his fellow team principals.

Years ago, when the supremacy of Schumacher and Ferrari was putting the audience to sleep, I suggested to Eddie Jordan that Formula 1 had achieved the impossible – it had made itself boring. Eddie put his finger to his lips. “I know,” he whispered, “but don’t tell anyone…”

Briatore was never like that. Because he had come from a commercial background – as a senior executive with Benetton, he had been responsible for launching the brand in the USA – he was used to dealing with ‘product’, and the need to sell it to the public. Sweaters and T-shirts or a Grand Prix on TV, it made no difference to Flav. Long ago he was bemused by the product F1 had become, and over time his opinion was unwavering.

“We are in the entertainment business, aren’t we?” he said in 2006. “Sure, you need technology – but a lot of people forget that we’re supposed to be racing! We need to remember what the customers want, and it makes no sense to spend huge amounts of money on something they don’t want, or understand.

“Part of the problem, I think, is that a lot of people at the top of teams started as engineers, rather than businessmen. An engineer gets his satisfaction from technology – he doesn’t care about anything else. Of course technology is important, but if it costs a lot of money – and makes F1 less entertaining – something is wrong, I think.”

Briatore doubted that many of his fellow team principals, out there in the real world, would long survive. He despaired of the waste in F1, and also of what he saw as blind complacency.

“We’re all in the right place at the right time, because Bernie has built up a fantastic business – but we’re doing everything we can to destroy it! We educate our people to work for the maximum expenditure – an F1 guy, looking for a present for somebody, goes straight to Bulgari! If it doesn’t cost a fantastic amount of money, it can’t be good – that’s the thinking in the paddock. And the more we spend, the more boring we are…”

Now this is the spring of 2009, and in the last few months the world has become a very different place. But even before the bankers and politicians plunged us all into chaos, there was evidence of a new sense of reality in F1, crystallised by the formation of FOTA (the Formula One Teams Association).

As I drove up to Enstone in late February, the thought occurred that my timing could have been better, for only the day before ING, Renault’s major sponsor, had announced its withdrawal at the end of the year.

Flavio, though, was not at all fazed – indeed his mood was ebullient. “Of course I’m sad to be losing such an important sponsor, but we’d been discussing it for three months, and we’re all aware of the financial situation in the world, so I think ING’s decision is quite understandable. Nobody knows what’s going on, do they? This is the first time we’ve had anything like this – since 1929, anyway.

“I think ING have done an amazing job in F1 – and F1 has done the same for ING. Their logo is recognisable everywhere now. The money they’ve spent in F1 – I think they’ve had it back 10 times. They were anyway thinking of leaving at the end of 2010.”

Briatore insisted he was not concerned about the future. “There’s only one F1, but there are several INGs. We have the best TV show in the world – and now we have to do it at the right price! That gives more opportunities for other sponsors to enjoy F1.

“You know, Renault never tell me, ‘We won’t finance this’, but I always thought that the idea of 1000 people working to produce two cars was a bit… exotic. In 1995 I had about 70 people working here, and now I have 400 – and that’s not because the racing is better!

“When I invest in a business, I want to make the product better – and that includes F1. Whatever I need to do to win, I do, but I think a good manager should anticipate problems. We always do the budget together with Renault, and if it’s 20-30 per cent less than some, it’s because that’s what makes sense for them to stay in F1. And now everyone has realised that costs were too high…”

If Briatore seemed buoyant, it stemmed primarily from the sea change in F1 brought about by the formation of FOTA. After years of meetings dominated by bickering and self-interest, the team principals finally came to realise the benefits, in their dealings with the powers-that-be, of speaking with one voice. Even more miraculously, they began to consider the needs of their audience, the quality of their ‘product’.

In the circumstances it would be easy for Briatore now to say ‘I told you so’, but he declined to go there, and merely stressed his content with the new state of play.

“It’s an amazing change – but it’s important to remember that FOTA was formed before the economic crisis arrived, OK?

“In F1 we have the FIA, we have the commercial rights holder, and we have the teams. The FIA is one person. The commercial rights holder is one person. The teams, though, are 10 or 12 people, all trying to do the best deal possible for themselves. It wasn’t working any more, so we tried to unify. We want to improve F1 – and to do it with Bernie and with Max Mosley, because if not there’s absolute confusion. Now the FIA knows we’re together, and they accept that.”

When the team principals met in Monaco last December, by which time the economic meltdown was in full spate, they produced a list of cost-cutting proposals literally unthinkable not so very long before. The in-season testing ban, for example, may have been no more than common sense, but, while Briatore was suggesting such a thing years ago, many of his colleagues would at one time have chewed on a razor blade before countenancing it.

“I always wanted less testing and more races,” said Flavio. “It seemed to me that all this money was being spent and it didn’t make the show any better.”

During those years, I wanted to know, where was Renault – while winning races and championships – saving money compared with its rivals?

“Well, philosophy comes into this a bit. First, we try to have all the facilities possible in the factory. OK, maybe I didn’t have the number one architect in the world to design it – I had the number 6515 architect, but it’s fine. For me a wind tunnel is a tube with some air going through it! My motorhome is the same one I’ve had for years, but what’s wrong with it? Nothing.

“It’s not only that, though. For example, I’ve never taken four cars to Monaco, although some people say it’s vital…

“It’s a matter of controlling your costs, with respect to performance, of being realistic. For me, what’s important is the overall budget, and the people in the company are intelligent enough to understand what is really fundamental for performance, and what is not.

“Always it seemed to me stupid that endless millions were being spent on trying to find a new technology, to get an advantage – and then everyone else has to spend the money, and after three months we’re all the same again! And none of it ever improved the product. If you buy one toy a year, the child is very happy. If you buy 20 a month, he doesn’t bother opening the boxes any more…

“We lost the base, I think – and for me the base is the spectator, the TV audience, wanting a more unpredictable race and more close involvement. A lot of my colleagues are ‘technical’ people, but I think we’re too technical – that’s not what interests most people. For me there was a very simple example: when we took Fernando Alonso at Renault, the TV audience in Spain was nothing – zero. After a few months it was nine million, OK? Now I don’t think it was nine million engineers watching the race…”

Perhaps because of Briatore’s avowed disinterest in technology, some have perhaps not taken him as seriously as they might have done. Even now, Jackie Stewart believes, Flavio’s skills are underestimated: “He runs a tight ship – I think he’s a superb manager”.

No compliment could please him more. Above all things, Briatore is a manager. “It’s the people who make a company,” he is fond of saying. “Not a company which makes the people.”

Carlos Ghosn, the president of Renault, is the man to whom Flavio directly reports. “For me,” he said, “it’s a privilege to work with one of the best managers in the world. The way he takes decisions is simple and quick, and he’s a brilliant strategist. A good manager is a simple person. Carlos is clear and straightforward.”

And his own management qualities? Briatore shrugged. “First of all, we are never formal here, and I’m a great believer in that – it makes things much easier. I hate three- and four-hour meetings that don’t achieve anything – some people are addicted to meetings. For me three minutes is much better. What I need is to understand a situation fully – and then I make a decision.

“I like to keep things as simple as possible, to be in control, to know what’s going on, all the time. The important thing is to get the right people in senior positions in the company, and then keep them, by making them feel they’re trusted and supported. Some teams have always paid much more than Renault, but there are other things in life that make people happy, too. I think there is almost a family atmosphere here.

“Our team has great people working for it – although maybe not the most famous in the paddock. I never take any established ‘big names’, because I’d go crazy at the extravagant salaries…”

No question, then, of Flav’s ever trying to recruit an Adrian Newey?

“No! For what? I’d prefer to buy a boat! From day one in this business, I tried to keep my costs under control. I always feel proud when we achieve something with more efficiency than some others.”

In the course of two decades in Formula 1, in how many seasons, I wondered, had Briatore been over-budget?

“Never. Not once. For me the number is the number, and people have to accept that. F1 is very demanding: I have to trust people like Bob [Bell] and Pat [Symonds], and they have to trust me. I don’t say that working with me is easy, but I do believe I’m always fair.”

Why did he think himself not an easy man to work with?

“Well, I’m very demanding, about marketing, and so on. And sometimes I don’t want to lose time explaining things, and people get upset about that. But, you know, I listen all the time – I think listening is the most important part of the job, because I want to understand why this matters more than that.”

One of Briatore’s great strengths, it has always seemed to me, is that he has no problem in delegating – he knows what he knows, but also, more unusually, what he does not.

“That’s why I have a technical director! I don’t have to be in the meeting when Bob or Pat are talking to Magneti Marelli – but afterwards I want to know what was decided. I want it to make sense when people explain things to me.

“I honestly don’t think there’s one team principal who understands everything that’s going on in his team – nobody has that much knowledge about everything. But you always need to have the temperature of the factory, of your people, the drivers, the situation.

“Everything in business needs to make sense. We should respect the investment, and have a sense of responsibility, like I have the responsibility at the moment of ensuring that as many people as possible keep their jobs – I know they have to pay the mortgage, and so on.

“I’ve always believed that a job is serious, and spending money is fine, but throwing it away is criminal – you need to put that into the mentality of the people working for you. The boss needs to feed his people as much information as possible. What position are we in at this moment?”

If the cost-cutting measures proposed by FOTA in December were far-reaching, it was clear that still more would be needed. Max Mosley said as much, and at FOTA’s inaugural press conference, on March 5, the members came forth with a more complete vision of the future. On the thorny subject of KERS, there was the suggestion that a ‘standardised’ system be adopted in 2010.

Briatore – like the great majority of people in F1, Bernie Ecclestone included – is not a fan of KERS, considering it paradoxical that something prodigiously expensive should be introduced at a time when the emphasis is supposedly on reducing costs.

Fundamentally, though, Flavio feels very positive about the future of F1. “One year ago I was pessimistic – but now I think where we’re going to is great for F1, because finally we’re all working together. OK, Honda have withdrawn, ING are walking away, a lot of other sponsors are shaky, and so on, but it’s an amazing opportunity for people to understand reality.”

We turned to the subject of the Renault team, and its prospects for 2009. Fernando Alonso, of course, returned last year, after a single tumultuous season with McLaren.

“It was a shock when Fernando went there, and I didn’t understand why he made that choice – he had just become World Champion, and then he won it again the following year, still with Renault. It was difficult, but apart from the odd day we’ve always had a fantastic relationship. I wasn’t so upset for myself – more for the team, because that’s where my first loyalty lies. In the end, drivers come and go, but the team stays.

“In some ways 2006 was a disaster for us. We developed the car all the way through to the last race, but Schumacher was retiring, and I think somebody was too keen to make him World Champion again in his last year. A few things happened that we didn’t like at all, but in the end there was some justice, and Fernando did win the championship.

“For ’07 it was difficult, because we’d concentrated on the ’06 car right through the previous year. Also Michelin withdrew, and McLaren and other teams had more time to adapt to the Bridgestones, because they hadn’t been fighting Ferrari for the championship.

“We also had a problem with the wind tunnel. It’s like you have a girlfriend who always tells you the truth – and then after seven years you find her in bed with somebody else. Suddenly the wind tunnel wasn’t faithful to us any more, and honestly we lost about six months because of that.

“We paid for it into 2008, as well. When Fernando came back, he knew what the situation was, and so in the beginning he was not upset. By half-season he was happy because we were making progress – the people here did an amazing job.”

Briatore wasn’t altogether surprised that the Alonso-McLaren relationship had not worked out.

“Sometimes, you know, we forget the… human part of people, particularly someone of 25. Everyone has different ways of managing people – I believe mine is right, and maybe Ron [Dennis] is right. You’re managing human beings, not machines, and I’ve found that if you say, ‘This is my line – take it or leave it’, normally people leave it!

“Sometimes the neighbour’s garden looks greener, but when you go there maybe it’s not so green. Whatever, Fernando had a bad experience – I don’t want to go into detail about where faults lay – and I think it was a great release to come back to Renault. He was much happier, more settled and mature. The year before he’d sometimes got up on the podium, and it looked like the dog just died…

“Everyone has different ways of operating, don’t they? For example, I had a big fight with Patrese – but he had been very happy with Williams. I had a fight with Brundle – and that was my big mistake. I was quite new to F1, and I thought Martin was slow – because he was in a team with Schumacher, and we didn’t realise then just how quick Michael was. Martin was the best team-mate Michael had…”

Speaking of team-mates, I ventured, more than a few of us were surprised that Flavio had given Nelson Piquet, after a disappointing first season, another chance.

“Yes, but… tell me who’s available who might have been better. Nelson’s young, and maybe last year was a bit too early for him to be in F1. I don’t want to throw away one year of investment, but this is the last chance for him.

“For me, it’s simple. If you have one driver like Fernando, you don’t need to have a competition in-house. You compete against other teams – you don’t compete with your own engineering. Doesn’t make any sense to me.”

And what of Briatore’s own future? Constantly seen over the years with a succession of supermodels, he shocked everyone last summer by marrying one of them, Elisabetta Gregoraci.

“I was more shocked than anybody! But I fell in love with her, and it reached a point where either we decided to do something serious or… forget it. There’s a big age difference between us, but at some point I think you need to settle yourself. Everybody asks me if I miss my old life, but, you know, for 40 years I was living in the best places in the world, and I was single, but then I started to think about two, rather than one. My wife is very intelligent, very supportive – I feel really happy, I can tell you. Life is better than before.”

I wondered if Flavio’s new-found domesticity might herald a possible change in his professional life – he has, after all, many times suggested he will leave Formula 1 sooner rather than later. He insisted, though, that he does not have a long-term plan in mind.

“First, I don’t need money for living, so this is already good. And at some point the quality of life becomes very important. I’m married now, I’ve been through cancer, and you need to do something that’s fun. OK, I’m not the guy to stay on the beach in Kenya every day, but…

“I never really have in mind to do something else… I mean, I’m in the restaurant business, with a Cipriani in London and another in Sardinia. We have six or seven ‘Billionaire’ shops now – two in London, one in Las Vegas, one in Sardinia, three in Moscow, two more opening… For now we’re doing OK.”

It was in June 2006 that Briatore, like many of the F1 contingent, went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for a routine check-up.

“They discovered a tumour – I had a cyst, and it was turning cancerous very quickly. It was a big shock – I hadn’t felt ill, I felt fine. I had surgery in Italy within a couple of weeks.

“In one way it was a good experience – I mean, you never forget something like that. For a time I felt fragile, that’s for sure, but I don’t get upset about things any more, not like I did. I’m calmer than I was. You never know about anything in life, do you? You think you have a big problem – and in just a moment you have another one bigger!

“You should live day by day, and make sure you’re happy, because happiness is something you don’t buy with money. And when you have good health, that’s everything…”