Flavio Briatore is just what Alpine needs — even if hire is hypocritical


Flavio Briatore was involved in Renault/Alpine's most shameful F1 episode, but the team desperately needs 'the ultimate hustler', says Damien Smith, author of a book on Benetton, which gave Briatore his GP racing break

Flavio Briatore outside Alpine F1 team garage at the 2024 Spanish Grand Prix

Briatore is back: in the Spanish Grand Prix paddock this weekend

Florent Gooden / DPPI

So Flavio Briatore is back in Formula 1. But I have to wonder, did he ever leave?

Fifteen years after he resigned as team principal of Renault in a cloud of dark controversy, he is back at the very same team in its current Alpine guise as an ‘Executive Advisor’. But really it’s a role he has played for years, mainly on an informal basis, for plenty of F1 movers and shakers away from the public gaze. Briatore has been knocking around F1, sometimes on its periphery, at others remarkably close to its centre, pretty much ever since the shame of ‘Singapore-gate’ came to public light in 2009.

Don’t forget, the lifetime ban he received from the FIA for his part in Nelson Piquet Jr crashing on purpose at the 2008 Singapore GP was overturned by a French court as early as 2010 – since when he’s mostly kept a low profile in F1. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t there. He is fabulously well-connected, always has been and still is. And despite the obvious big black mark, he’s also well-liked too – which is important.

Publicly, Briatore has become more prominent in recent years in his role as manager and trusted advisor to Fernando Alonso – the driver who benefitted directly from Piquet Jr’s dastardly act, yet somehow avoided the lasting stain on his reputation that remains a permanent blemish for his manager and friend. Alonso has never appeared bothered about the continuing association with such a man.

Flavio Briatore with Fernando Alonso in 2023

Briatore remains Alonso’s manager. Inset, the pair won two titles together at Renault

Arnold Jerocki/F1 via Getty

Pat Symonds, who was also deeply implicated in the affair, underwent a much more open and complete F1 rehabilitation, first via Williams, later via the Manor team and most recently as the ultimate ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ architect of F1’s technical regulations. Now Symonds is back at the coal-face, at Andretti – if it ever gets an entry.

But Luca de Meo’s signing of Briatore is far more controversial and will leave a bad taste for many. That’s understandable. No one can ever, or should even try, to condone or forget what happened within the Renault team at Singapore in 2008. It was a tawdry, shameful episode and Briatore, as the boss, had to carry the can. But does that mean he shouldn’t be allowed to return to Team Enstone, as it is colloquially known? It’s uncomfortable, to put it mildly. You might even say laughably hypocritical for such an organisation as Renault to associate itself with someone who conspired to put into action the darkest, most reprehensible episode in its long sporting history.

Related article

Yet from another perspective, it’s also an entirely logical move. In terms of what Alpine requires right now, in the midst of its increasingly desperate spiral into sad backmarker status, Briatore is precisely what it needs. And in F1, practical needs-must demands always overrule anything that prickles the conscience. That’s how it’s always been.

So why is Briatore just what Alpine needs? First, I should add the caveat that he’s not ‘THE ANSWER’. Clearly, he doesn’t have the power, knowledge or understanding to single-handedly lead the blues triumphantly up the grid and win back all of its damaged pride. Of course he’s not that person. He’s not Adrian Newey… In fact, Briatore has revelled in his technical ignorance of F1, from the moment he parachuted (against his own better judgement) into what was then Benetton at the start of the 1989 season.

But while Briatore knows precious little about F1 technically, he knows everything about how it operates. He is the ultimate hustler, always on the make for a deal, but who does so having looked and listened closely to make sure he lands the right one. I’d argue there’s been no one better and more effective in F1, ever.

That conclusion became clear when I was researching my book Benetton: Rebels of Formula 1. As Symonds and others told me, Briatore was considered warily by the engineering team when he first pitched up at the team’s Witney base. Even more so when Symonds overheard him dismiss employees as “ just engineers” at his first grand prix with the team in Rio at the first race of 1989.

But thereafter all of them made it clear that, for all of his obvious ignorance, Briatore did prove to be a highly effective and actually often decent boss and leader. “I’m not sure I’m going to get on with this guy,” Symonds told me on his first impression. “In actual fact I did get on with him very well and he has a lot of admirable qualities. There were some big changes in Flavio over the years.”

Nelson Piquet with Benetton F1 team boss Flavio Briatore in 1989

Briatore with Nelson Piquet in 1989, his first season as Benetton boss


There are plenty of funny stories. How he created his own apartment within the Enstone base to stay overnight, complete with fake book cases and framed photos of him kissing all sorts of celebrities; how engineers late one night ran up an engine, then heard applause when they switched it off, only to encounter Flav in his velvet dressing gown and ‘Ali Baba’ slippers; comical exchanges on the pitwall, when often his colleagues had no hope of deciphering what he said, given the strength of his slurring accent; and his admittance that even if they had understood him, his words probably wouldn’t have made much sense!

Yet at the same time, none of them underestimated Briatore – and all I spoke to recognised what he brought to the team, as a leader who wasn’t afraid to make the big calls. He listened, learned and understood in whom he should place his trust when it came to running each department. Even if he didn’t necessarily know or at least remember all their names… As for the reversed baseball caps and music turned up to 11 in the garage, what a great way to further get under the opposition’s skin. Life was fun under Briatore and he inspired a certain confidence that all winners need.

Sure, he made mistakes. Hiring both Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi from Ferrari in apparent vengeance for Michael Schumacher’s defection in 1996 wasn’t his finest moment, especially as their salaries took up vital budget that could have been better spent elsewhere. But overall he made more good calls than bad ones.

From the archive

When Benetton continued to smack against F1’s glass ceiling in the late 1980s, failing to break through as a true front-running team, incoming Briatore quickly hired John Barnard – the most celebrated and successful designer of the decade. On the face of it, a good signing. Actually, a great one given Barnard’s pedigree. Even Symonds and chief designer Rory Byrne, who was understandably uneasy about the move, accepted that.

As it turns out of course, Barnard’s tenure at Benetton turned into a painful, if short, lesson in how much damage ill-suited marriages can do, to both individuals and organisations as a whole. But an episode within that period highlights, for me, just why Briatore ended up being so successful and effective in later years, and why he should be credited for playing his part in those double titles with Schumacher and Alonso.

Such were the tensions wrought by the caustic Barnard, things came to a head in September 1990 when 13 senior engineers led by Byrne and Symonds quit Benetton en masse to join Adrian Reynard’s bid to establish a new F1 team. Symonds related how Briatore responded, and it wasn’t with the explosion of fury you might expect.

“Flavio called Rory and me into his office and said, ‘Are you sure about this?’ We said, ‘Yes, we can’t work with this guy [Barnard].’ Flavio said, ‘Fine, I understand it, you’ve been good guys, we’re not going to part on bad terms because who knows, we might be working together one day.’ It was almost like he knew. I walked out of the office and thought no way will that ever happen.”

Yet around a year later, with Barnard long gone and the Reynard project burnt out by a lack of engine deal, there was Briatore rehiring Byrne, Symonds and others. This was business, it made sense to welcome back talented engineers, and anyway he wasn’t one to burn bridges – as today’s announcement shows.

Pat Symonds with Michael Schumacher and Flavio Briatore at 1995 F1 European GP

Symonds, left, was back in the fold when Schumacher tasted title success with Benetton

Gilles Levent/DPPI

There’s one other aspect to this unlikely reunion that intrigues me. Briatore has never been a sentimental sort, and memories of the past will have nothing to do with his decision to accept this invitation. When I interviewed Flav for my book, I suggested to him he must be proud of his time at Benetton/Renault, and of its achievements under his watch. He didn’t hit the soft question back to me in the way I expected, at all.

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

Bruno Michel and Flavio Briatore stand on a balcony above an F1 sign

Briatore, with Supertec co-founder Bruno Michel, has remained involved with F1

Grand Prix Photo

Supertec. The company he set up with Bruno Michel in the wake of Renault’s F1 withdrawal in 1997 and his own departure from Benetton to keep manufacturing and then selling the car company’s V10 engines back to a grid that he knew was about to be starved of viable powerplants. Deliciously, one of those teams who required a customer engine was Benetton itself, which paid through the nose to the tune of £17m a year. A good bit of business from old Flav, that. And he’s prouder of it – and perhaps the twist in the knife it represented – than anything Schumacher and subsequently Alonso achieved on track, after Briatore returned, again at the invitation of Renault when it had bought the team from Benetton.

That’s Briatore. He does the killer deals: for drivers, engineers, sponsors – and for engines. If it really is true that Renault is about to sanction its team to abandon its own power (and surely its pride) to become a Mercedes customer, it has hired precisely the right man to broker the price. Briatore back at Renault, but with Mercedes engines powering its cars? Proof beyond anything we’ve yet seen that, to bastardise a phrase from dear old Murray Walker, anything in F1 can happen – and probably will.