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Flavio Briatore: The Fighter

Nothing has come easy for Formula One’s most jaded boss, but despite career setbacks — and more than a few run-ins with the law — Flavio Briatore shows no signs of slowing down
By Lubna Hamdan
Sun 07 Feb 2016 11:08 AM

A cheat, a playboy, a fraud, a madman. These are a few of the names used to describe Flavio Briatore. But dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans at his Taj Dubai hotel suite, he couldn’t care less. “I love fighting,” he says. “This is what I’ve done all my life.”

If you’ve ever come across Briatore’s name, chances are you’ve seen it alongside a sensational headline. Formula One race-fixing, accusations of tax fraud, supermodel partners half his age, and the list goes on. It’s true, he’s never been the world’s favourite Italian. But great fighters rarely become the favourite. “When you are a fighter and you are coming from nothing, you have a problem with the media. In the media, there is a lot of jealousy and a lot of adversary. This is the salt and pepper in life. You know, for me, it was always the same,” he says. Even now, the 65-year-old millionaire says nothing has changed.

Briatore failed school twice, before starting a career as a ski instructor and door-to-door salesman. Later, he moved to Cuneo in the 1970s to work for businessman Attilio Dutto — owner of paint company Paramatti Vernici. Following Vernici, he moved to Milan to work for Finanziaria Generale Italia at the Italian Stock Exchange. During this time, he met Luciano Benetton, eponymous founder of the Benetton clothing firm. Less than a decade later, he got his first run-in with the law. In the early 1980s he was convicted of fraud and conspiracy for his role in a gambling ring. The group set up rigged tables, used fake playing cards and identities. Briatore was handed two prison sentences in Italy — none of which he served.

Instead of a life behind bars, he fled to the Virgin Islands and set up shop with Luciano Benetton. The pair opened several successful Benetton stores in the region. By the time his convictions went away by amnesty, Briatore was director of the group’s American operations. Keen to combine his business with his passion, Briatore moved to the US and became manager of the Benetton Formula One team in the 1990s.

But racing is not the same as making t-shirts. “When we started Formula One with Benetton, everybody was laughing, because Benetton was a t-shirt maker.

"It entered a very technological environment with geniuses in engineering. But they weren’t laughing for much longer, because we started winning. And people were laughing less,” he says. People stopped laughing altogether when Briatore set his eyes on a young driver he spotted in 1991. That driver was Michael Schumacher.

With Benetton, Schumacher won several races and became the youngest two-time World Champion in Formula One history. He went on to win seven championships. Next, Briatore recruited another young talent, Fernando Alonso. He would go on to win two world championships, and solidify Briatore’s reputation as a talent scout.

“We created a good team. A good driver, Michael Schumacher at the time, and the same with Fernando Alonso. The same movie with a different actor, if you will,” says Briatore.

What was his method? “It’s a feeling,” says the Italian. “When I saw Michael for the first time, I saw a really angry boy, very shy. I remember I was in London the first time I met him. And the first time I met Fernando I was in London, and he was too shy to say good morning or good night. But you feel it. You feel something inside when you’re talking to these people and they change immediately. From being a normal kid to talking about cars, speaking about driving, talking about speed. Immediately it’s an animal inside these people, a fire. Their talent is catching,” he says.

But in spite of his own talent, Briatore’s Formula One career was short-lived.

In September 2009, the Italian was convicted of race-fixing at the Singapore Grand Prix. While he denied the charges, he resigned from the team – which had been purchased by Renault. He was banned from any Formula One event by The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). Even though the ban was later overturned by a French tribunal, by then Briatore had turned his back on racing.

“They [FIA] weren’t happy because we [Renault] were too powerful at the time. At the time I was representing the team, myself and Luciano, we were too powerful. But with that power, I promise you Formula One would have stayed like it was before.

"I don’t have a ban anymore. If I want to go to Formula One I can go tomorrow morning,” he says. So why doesn’t he? “I don’t miss it,” he says, “I miss the old Formula One.”

Briatore has publicly shared his disapproval of the current Formula One, calling it a “PlayStation for engineers. People forget the fans, forget the show".

"Now it’s an exercise for engineers and it’s not sexy anymore. There’s no glamour. When you see the engineers on TV explaining an amazing clutch, nobody cares. People care about the driver, the star. Now to be quick, you need the bank to finance you. Now people put money in the car. Everything is critical. If you touch the white line, you are punished. If you don’t have the right engine, you are punished.

"It’s a punishing business,” he says.

Despite his thoughts, the 65-year-old believes changes to the sport are coming.

“I think sooner or later it will change, because like this it will go nowhere. People don’t find it interesting. It’s missing the gladiator factor. The drivers need to fight. You need to a rivalry between drivers, between Senna and Prost, between Mansell and Schumacher. This is what people want to see,” he says.

Perhaps Formula One is missing larger-than-life figures like Briatore?  “No way,” he says on going back, “I’ve done it already.” Formula One might need Briatore, but Briatore clearly doesn’t need Formula One.

Today, Briatore continues to make his fortune under luxury holding Billionaire Life. The Billionaire brand mixes high fashion with a chain of hotels, restaurants and nightclubs.

Billionaire Couture, his clothing brand, started in 1998 with one shop in Milan. Today, it has 30 locations around the world, including London, Moscow, and Dubai. The secret to its success? Once again, it’s Briatore’s ability to spot talent. “You need talent to choose the right people. This is what I try to do.

"I choose the right people. It’s the same with Billionaire Couture. The people in charge must be committed and passionate,” he says.

The people in charge must be something else, too: young. While a little long in the tooth himself, Briatore is not a fan of old people — at least not when it comes to his employees.

“I am the old guy in the organisation, and I don’t want to see somebody older than me. If you come and see our office in Milan, the average age of an employee is 27 to 28 years old. I want to work with young people. It’s much more exciting for young people to grow with you, and grow with the company,” he says.

While Briatore’s portfolio of nightclubs and hotels is growing across Europe and Africa, it’s his latest endeavour that today commands his full attention: Billionaire Mansion. Located in the Taj Hotel, it includes two restaurants, a lounge, nightclub, shisha cafe and karaoke bar.

How much did it cost to produce?

“Too much,” says the former Formula One boss. “We don’t know yet. It’s difficult to tell because we are in the middle of it.

"The budget in this kind of business is unstable. It’s a big investment,” he says.

But costs may not be the only thing Briatore needs worry about. In Dubai, the entertainment trade is oversaturated and fickle, at best. But this doesn’t seem to faze him, “You know what? We’re very professional. We know what we’re doing. We’re prepared. In Dubai there is a lot of competition, but I love competing with the best people. I love to be in this environment where the best is winning. It’s like the news business. If I’m doing the news, I want to do my news at 8 o’clock like everybody else.

"I don’t want to do it at 8:15 or 7:45. I want to compete with the big boys,” he says.

At 65 years, Briatore is ever the fighter. And he’s shows no signs of slowing down. Retirement? “No, too boring for me,” he says, but he admits he’s not getting any younger. “Every morning I shave and say, ‘My goodness, I’m still alive.’ Some people believe they will stay young forever.

"A friend of mine, he’s older than me, wants to do a project with me in Nigeria in ten years. I said, ‘That’s too much time, you’re 80 years old, you’ll be 90 by then!” he admits, laughing. But age has never been a defining factor for Briatore.

He’s long had a reputation as a playboy, credited with a series of flings with supermodels Heidi Klum and Naomi Campbell. Briatore eventually settled down with model wife, 35-year-old Elisabetta Gregoraci, and has a son, five year old Falco. While his relationships are just as controversial as his Formula One past, he has paid his dues when it comes to fathering his son. “My son is my greatest achievement.

"We have a great life. And we recognise it. We go to Kenya and support orphanages and schools. I sent my son there for a few days so that he understands that sometimes, you have a piece of soap for 20 kids,” says Briatore. His philanthropy has led him to meet some of the world’s biggest names. The most impressive, he says, was Nelson Mandela. “I never once heard him talk bad about someone. He suffered a lot, was put in jail for 27 years, and still I never heard him talk bad about anyone.”

He also credits his past business partners, “After Mandela I have two other fantastic people that I have worked with. One is Luciano Benetton. Benetton is part of my family. We talk every day. The other is Bernie Ecclestone. Bernie is a genius. And Benetton is a genius. I was lucky to work with two geniuses in my life,” he says.

Does Briatore think he, himself, is a genius? “I don’t know, maybe a small one.”

Briatore battled his way through life, from ski instructor to millionaire, and faced his fair share of setbacks along the way. Genius? In his words, maybe a small one. Up for a fight? Absolutely.

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Last Updated: Thu 26 Jan 2017 01:27 PM GST

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