Flavio Briatore: from fraudster to fashion executive to F1 boss


Flavio Briatore has returned to the F1 paddock as a special advisor to Alpine – here's the world champion team boss's rollercoaster story so far

Flavio Briatore 2024

Briatore has returned to an official F1 role, 15 years after his last ended in acrimony

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Restauranteur; financier; record producer; confidence man, fashion mogul and, finally, world champion F1 team boss.

Few in motor sport have a background – both pre, during and post-F1 – as colourful and controversial as Flavio Briatore, the man who proclaimed to know little of the grand prix world’s workings when he first took over the Benetton team in 1989 and still professes ignorance on the racing technology that drives the series.

It’s never held him back, as five world championships for Team Enstone under his watch attest, and now the playboy Italian businessman has returned to F1 – as a special advisor to Alpine, the squad he left in acrimony 15 years ago after being implicated in the plot to deliberately manipulate the result of the 2008 Singapore GP.

All this has played out against a background of supermodel girlfriends, fraud convictions and even terrorist attacks – it hasn’t been a journey for the feint-hearted.

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Briatore: at home in the F1 paddock

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And he’s still going. The arch deal-maker, who still manages Fernando Alonso (the winner of the Singapore race), will “predominantly focus on top level areas of the team” according to Alpine.

There’s no one quite like Flavio Briatore – read the story of his rise, fall and rise again below.


Down from the mountains – Flavio Briatore’s early years

Flavio Briatore was born in 1950 into relatively humble beginnings as the son of two school-teachers in Verzuolo, in the mountainous region of Piedmont – the young Italian didn’t have much intention of hanging around though.

“If you are born in the middle of the Congo, you don’t mean to say you were lucky,” he told La Repubblica in 2005.

“I wasn’t born in the Congo, but among those mountains, even as a child I felt a certain uneasiness, I felt that I was someone without roots. When they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, whether I was a fireman, a lawyer or a notary, I replied that before anything else I wanted to get away from there, from those hardships, from those efforts, from those sacrifices”.

Briatore earned the nickname ‘Tribula’ as a youngster, a restless character who will do almost anything to get what he wants.

“In the villages there is a nickname for everyone,” he said. “They gave it to me when I worked in a restaurant in San Giacomo di Roburent. I worked hard, I was eager… I was a ‘tribula’, yes.”


Flavio Briatore’s rise – From trickster to thrusting fashion executive 

Seeking his fortune, Briatore then rifled through a whole number of jobs, roles and guises.

He first opened a doomed restaurant – named ‘Tribula’, naturally – in Cuneo near his birthplace.

Following its collapse, Briatore next became the business assistant of Attilio Dutto, the owner of the Paramatti Vernici paint company, who was then killed in a car bomb attack in 1979.

The perpetrator was never found, amidst a murky background: the prior owner was Michele Sindona, a Sicilian Mafia banker who laundered heroin profits for the Gambino family gang and was killed by poisoning in prison.

Briatore next moved to Milan to work in finance, heading up Compagnia Generale Industriale, which went bankrupt. Briatore was convicted for fraud in his role in the collapse.

Flavio Briatore Nelson Piquet Monaco 1990

Briatore with Nelson Piquet at Monaco 1990, during the second year of his first Benetton tenure

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Whilst moonlighting as an apparent record producer, Briatore became part of a group of confidence tricksters who rigged gambling games in order to win large sums of money from the wealthy players they lured in.

Like something out of parody film, the ring included a fake marquis and a real count, a lawyer, a TV presenter and Briatore, the supposed music mogul.

Managing to get millions out of their unsuspecting victims, the authorities eventually closed in on Briatore and co. The Italian was again convicted of fraud and handed a three-year prison sentence in 1986.

“Little by little, I was in charge of the whole team” Flavio Briatore

His contacts proved useful though: in the meantime Briatore absconded to the Virgin Islands where extradition wouldn’t be possible, and began working for Luciano Benetton, where he began opening and managing franchises for the Benetton fashion brand form the mid-1980s.

The Piedmont native quickly rose to direct Benetton’s US operations – opening 800 stores – but then, in 1988, everything changed, when Luciano Benetton took Briatore to that year’s Australian GP in Adelaide.

“It was really the first time I saw a Formula 1 car,” he told The Independent in 2008. “But I was impressed about everything, really; the car, the facility. By that time, Benetton had just arrived in F1, and Luciano wanted somebody to be in charge of the merchandising side.

“I was living in the US at the time. Formula 1 wasn’t popular there. I wasn’t a fan. But Luciano convinced me to at least do one year and see what happens. And little by little, I was in charge of the whole team.”


Flavio Briatore becomes Benetton’s F1 team boss – from occasional winners to world champions

Flavio Briatore Michael Schumacher 1993

Briatore celebrates with Michael Schumacher in 1993

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Though Briatore was brought in on the commercial end of the Oxfordshire team, as in the US fashion business he quickly rose to run the whole show.

One of his early moves was to bring in feted designer John Barnard, who had won titles with his carbon composite McLaren designs and races at Ferrari using an innovative semi-automatic gearbox.

However, it wasn’t long before the strong-headed pair clashed, and Briatore displayed both a soon-to-be familiar ruthless side and a foresight into the developing world of modern F1 by moving Barnard on.

“I believe he is one of the best designers in Formula 1,” Briatore told Motor Sport in 1994.

Alessandro Benetton, Flavio Briatore and Tom Walkinshaw

Alessandro Benetton, Flavio Briatore and Tom Walkinshaw

“But I believe too that the concept of technology has changed. There is no more one-man band operating the team. 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.”

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However, the pieces soon fell into place. Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds, who had been with Benetton since its initial Toleman guise and had left after clashing with Barnard, returned at the end of ’91 – preceded by the arrival of Michael Schumacher, who Briatore had wrestled from Jordan after only one race.

This nascent super team was soon joined by Ross Brawn and Tom Walkinshaw to further bolster the engineering side, and the results followed.

Schumacher was a race winner in ’92 and ’93 before claiming back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 with Benetton also snaring the constructors’ crown in 1995 – Briatore and his team had climbed the F1 mountain, and in relatively short time.

“When I arrived in F1, for me McLaren was god,” he said on the eve of that first championship season.

“It was something impossible to touch. When I saw Ron Dennis, he was a second god. He was like Senna, you know. Last year I was in front of him 80% of the time. He won more races than me. Talking about the spirit. I had been in F1 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…”

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Briatore had an eye for talent – he made no mistake with Schumacher

“Michael was of a certain breed; you have Michael, you have [Ayrton] Senna,” he added in 2018. “I was lucky to work with Michael and Fernando Alonso. It was a unique time to have so many stars in F1.”

There was action off the track too: the front door of Briatore’s Belgravia mansion was blown off in early 1993 by an explosive device. The IRA claimed responsibility, but it was suggested the bomb had been dumped there by an operative the police were tailing.

Briatore has long marked himself out as a man with an eye for talent – but he also had a hard-nosed human resources approach, as a whole host of talented drivers found out if they were perceived to be underperforming. Johnny Herbert, Martin Brundle, Jos Verstappen, JJ Lehto and Jarno Trulli all felt the full force.

“I survived in every situation in F1” Flavio Briatore

Unfortunately for the thrusting team boss, the brilliant double-world champion squad he had constructed largely upped sticks and moved over to Ferrari across the space of two years from 1996 to 1997 – a situation compounded by Briatore signing both Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi (two drivers who appeared past their best) to drive on very high salaries, starving the design department of development budget.

What followed was a fallow period for Benetton, and Briatore was removed as team boss in 1997 – but he still had irons in the F1 fire. The upshot was that he managed to get the team to pay for an engine supply he owned – the Supertec Reanult power unit.

“You know what? For me I did my job in the way I managed people and situations,” he told Damien Smith.

“I survived in every situation in F1. For me the miracle was Supertec. Nobody talks about that.

“I put all my money from Benetton into that to sign a contract with Renault. It was a risk. Not so many people do stuff like that, you know?”


Flavio Briatore’s Renault return and F1 titles with Fernando Alonso

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Alonso and Briatore celebrate another race win

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When Renault purchased Benetton, with the rebadging happening from the start of the 2002 season, Briatore was brought back into the fold as team boss.

The squad made steady progress, supercharged by the signing of Alonso (also then managed by Briatore), who took his first win at the 2003 Hungarian GP.

Another race victory followed at Monaco ’04 with Jarno Trulli, but in 2005 the floodgates opened.

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The Renault R25 was a highly competitive car, and though Kimi Räikkönen’s McLaren MP4-20 may have had the competitive edge, the Enstone car was more reliable.

Briatore’s Renault would secure both 2005 F1 crowns with Alonso leading the charge, then make it a back-to-back double in 2006 after a title fight with Schumacher at Ferrari.

From there though, another malaise followed. Alonso left for McLaren in 2007 in the midst Renault’s wavering F1 commitment, and issues back at the factory hampered a team which had overstretched itself in going for the championship glory.

“For ’07 it was difficult, because we’d concentrated on the ’06 car right through the previous year,” said Briatore. “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 anymore, and honestly we lost about six months because of that.”

The dip in performance again caused Renault to call it to question its F1 presence, forcing Briatore and co into desperate measures.


Briatore’s shame – Renault’s 2008 F1 Crashgate scandal

Nelson Piquet Renault is lifted off the track by crane after his deliberate crash in 2008 Singapore Grand Prix

Piquet’s car is lifted off the track after deliberate crash

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After one tumultuous year at McLaren in 2007, Alonso rejoined Renault for 2008.

Though the Spaniard’s force-of-nature approach helped pull a few decent results out of his R28, the team was still under pressure from the Renault board.

Things weren’t helped by Alonso’s rookie team-mate, Nelson Piquet Jr, clearly underperforming.

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However, the Brazilian could still make himself useful.

Up to this point in the season (15 out of 18) Alonso had yet to snare a podium, but Piquet had at the German GP, by virtue of the fact that during 2007 and ’08 the pitlane was closed under the safety car.

Having pit just before an SC at Hockenheim, the Brazilian shot to a fortuitous second place which he held onto till the race end.

Briatore and engineer Pat Symonds realised they could engineer a similar situation at another race in the hope of snatching a victory – and therefore hopefully convincing Renault to stay in F1.

Alonso had shown promising pace at the Singapore GP, but this all came to naught when a technical issue relegated him to 15th for the race.

Briatore and Symonds decided now was the time to act. If they could engineer a safety car at the right moment, with Alonso already having taken a stop, then the Spaniard would hopefully (for them) emerge in the lead once the rest of the field had pitted post SC – putting Alonso in control of the race.

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Alonso celebrates victory in Singapore with Briatore – but trouble was on the horizon

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Piquet Jr was in on the conspiracy. He was ordered by his team bosses to “push” (code for deliberately crash) which he did so on lap 13, spinning his car into the barriers at Turn 18.

Alonso duly moved into the lead and won, but suspicions already being raised.

Midway through the next season, Renault fired Piquet Jr anyway, and he immediately went to the FIA and explained what had happened.

The Brazilian was protected from punishment due to giving evidence, Alonso was exonerated, but Briatore and Symonds bore the FIA’s wrath: the team boss was given a lifetime ban; the engineer five years.


Piquet revealed Singapore plan after being fired from Renault

Grand Prix Photo

Later the former sentence was later overturned and the latter reduced to three years after being ruled unlawful in a French court, although both had quit their roles.

While Symonds would eventually return to work with Marussia, Williams, the FIA and now Andretti, Briatore has remained one step removed, largely involved through his continuing management of Alonso.

That said, the effect of the Singapore crashgate scandal are still being felt today.

Felipe Massa, whose botched pitstop while leading was an indirect result of the Piquet crash, argues that had the conspiracy not occurred, he would have won the race and therefore had the points to beat Lewis Hamilton to the world championship.

The Brazilian has since moved to sue F1 and the FIA for $80m in light of supposed income lost by not being world champion.


Briatore’s wilderness years – management, The Apprentice and Piastri-gate

4 Flavio Briatore The Apprentice

Briatore presented Italy’s version of The Apprentice during his time out of tF1

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While Symonds returned to the F1 fold before too long, Briatore has operated on the periphery – though has still attended many GPs.

In the meantime he has also kept himself occupied with several business ventures.

In 1998 he began developing the Billionaire brand, a series of clubs and fashion outlets, supplementing this with a restaurant in Mayfair in 2004 as well as a holiday resort in Kenya.

In 2007, along with Bernie Ecclestone, he purchased Queens Park Rangers football club, declaring he wanted to turn it into a “boutique” football fan experience.

However, in light of the Crashgate scandal, he stepped down as chairman in 2010, soon selling on his interest.

“It’s only ever a good idea if you’re very rich and looking for ways to waste your money,” he said of owning a football club.

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Briatore branches out into football with Queens Park Rangers

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“In two years you’ll be very poor and won’t have that problem anymore.”

Briatore also presented one series of the Italian version of The Apprentice, playing up to all the stereotypes formed around him over the years.

Fernando Alonso’s continued presence in F1 has kept Briatore involved as a driver manager too. The canny operator was apparently central to the Oscar Piastri saga, which began when Alonso made the shock announcement midway through 2022 that he would make the switch to Aston Martin for 2023, unhappy with Alpine’s shorter contract offer.

Alpine then declared its junior driver Piastri would replace Alonso, who almost immediately respond with a social media post stating he was not heading to the Enstone team for 2023.

Eventually the Alpine squad lost both drivers, opting for Pierre Gasly instead.

In managing to get a longer and more lucrative contract for Alonso at Aston, Briatore was once again at the centre of the action.


2024 – Flavio Briatore makes F1 comeback with Alpine

15 years after his exit from F1, Flavio Briatore is back, as a special advisor to the very same team he left in disgrace.

Alpine says that he “will predominantly focus on top level areas of the team including: scouting top talents and providing insights on the driver market, challenging the existing project by assessing the current structure and advising on some strategic matters within the sport.”

“I know the chairman of Renault, Luca de Meo, very well and have lots of respect [for him],” said Briatore.

“He met some difficulties in the performance of the team. He asked if it was possible for me to be the executive advisor of the chairman. We negotiated for two or three months, maybe more.

“I feel I have the motivation to do it. I feel it is possible to do it. I feel that it’s possible to put the team again on the right direction to performing and this is what I like, to go back in the competition.”

It remains to be seen whether the Italian will occupy a Helmut Marko-style role, operating as a young driver guru who will prevent situations like the Piastri saga, or in fact has a role to act as a deal facilitator in the event of the struggling team being sold on.


Briatore has been key in the movements which have triggered the Piastri wrangle

Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Despite being seen as archaic figure of F1’s outrageous, non-politically correct past – Briatore is now 74 – the Italian has long had a view of grand prix racing which now is probably now more in tune with its current philosophy than ever, in light of the Drive to Survive phenomenon, the proliferation of glamorous streets races, sprint events and the social media boom.

“We are in the entertainment business, aren’t we?” Briatore told Nigel Roebuck 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.”

“You have the Olympics, they happen every four years,” he said even earlier in 1994. “You have the Superbowl in America, for the people eating the popcorn. Finish. And you have F1. F1 is the mix of power, speed, human beings fighting together. Noise. Lifestyle. This is what the people you see know in F1. I don’t see so many know about active suspension. I never see your guys come to me and say, ‘Your active system is so beautiful!’

“When we have these meetings, everyone talks about technical, technical, technical. Nobody talks about improving our business.”

Briatore has already had a lasting effect on F1 – but he might not be done yet.