By Edward Gorman
Read how the glamorous Formula One billionaire came crashing to earth last week.
How the Formula One billionaire became the greatest cheat in the history of sport.
Flamboyant, rich, football mad, a lover of women with his own way of talking in any language and an apparent Midas touch when it comes to business and sport, Flavio Briatore came crashing to earth last week.
One of the big beasts of the Formula One jungle, it seems his overarching ambition, desperation almost, to repeat his earlier glories of championship and race-winning seasons drove him and his No 2 at the Renault Formula One team, Pat Symonds, the director of engineering, allegedly to commit one of the worst acts of cheating and race-fixing in professional sport.
The Renault Formula One team last week sensationally released a statement saying that they would not dispute claims made against their conduct at last year's Singapore Grand Prix. It was charged that Nelson Piquet Jr, their former driver, was instructed to crash his car on purpose during the race, in a plot designed to propel his teammate Fernando Alonso to victory.
Piquet Jr, who was fired by Renault last month, crashed on the 14th lap of last year's race. Alonso went on to win the race as other cars came in to refuel while the Spanish driver had enough fuel to move ahead of the field.
Governing body FIA began investigating last month, and offered Piquet Jr immunity against prosecution in return for his testimony.
The statement, which said the team "will not dispute the recent allegations made by the FIA" also revealed that Briatore, the team's managing director, and Symonds had both left the team. It was not clear whether they had been sacked.
Until this debacle, Briatore, 59, could be counted among the most successful and influential figures in Formula One. He had presided over two world championships for Michael Schumacher during his time as team principal at Benetton in the mid-1990s, then he repeated the feat at Renault, where Fernando Alonso won drivers' titles in 2005 and 2006.
The Italian with a mop of long grey hair, who started out as a skiing instructor, had become a big player at the head of one of the sport's biggest teams. As the years rolled by, Briatore had survived to become a close associate of Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire Formula One promoter with whom he regularly played poker and with whom he is a part-owner of Queens Park Rangers football club.
In recent years, Briatore had developed strong convictions on how the sport could be developed and improved. He played a prominent role in the Formula One Teams Association (Fota) and he was regarded as someone who saw himself eventually running the show, in the role of an Ecclestone. (Dangerous ambitions, those, when the man himself is still very much in charge.) In the crisis over a threatened breakaway by the teams from the FIA this season, Briatore was a leading light and his conduct during that difficult time did not endear him to either Ecclestone or Max Mosley, the president of the governing body.
Briatore was successful, but it would be hard to argue that he was widely respected or loved. Many saw potential difficulties because he tried to run the Renault team and, at the same time, owned a company that managed several drivers. And there was a ruthlessness about him that did not endear him to the wider paddock. No better example of this was his unwise and distasteful personal attack on Nelson Piquet Jr, his former driver, who sparked the scandal that brought him down, when Briatore tried to dismiss the allegations against him at the Italian Grand Prix at the weekend.
Like many in Formula One, which is as much a business as a sport, it would be hard to argue that Briatore is passionate about it. Football is a religion for him and, since buying into QPR two years ago, his ham-fisted attempts to run that club have occupied his mind and his dreams probably more than any of his problems in motorsport. Rather, he is regarded as a highly competitive deal-maker who found success in business and sport by being clever in whom he employed and letting them get on with it without interfering too much.
In the paddock, he was known as someone who could be very hard on drivers who did not match up to his exacting standards while, at the same time, he adored Alonso, the Spanish driver whom many, not just Briatore, view as in an exceptional class of two alongside Lewis Hamilton.
It was widely thought that his own expertise was limited and he had very little, if anything, useful to add from his seat on the Renault pitwall during races. They sometimes used to joke in the team that he should be given his own radio channel, so that no one else could hear him.
The Italian, whose parents were both teachers, left the ski slopes for the Milan stock exchange as a young man, where he got his big break in 1974 when introduced to Luciano Benetton. Three years later, Benetton hired him to roll out his line of casual clothing stores in the United States. Briatore was phenomenally successful in that task and by 1989 he found himself running the company's Formula One team with a young driver on his hands called Michael Schumacher.
At that time, Briatore surrounded himself with talented lieutenants, some of whom stayed with him for years, among them Symonds. Another who worked for him as technical director was Ross Brawn, who would go on to achieve so much at Ferrari and now Brawn GP.
Briatore's success at Benetton was matched at Renault where he took the helm after the company re-entered Formula One in 2000, having bought the Benetton team. Based at Enstone, near Oxford, Renault always had a reputation as being a group of real "racers" but with a relatively relaxed approach compared with, say, McLaren Mercedes under their former principal, Ron Dennis. Those who worked with him say Briatore's great strength was in knowing what he did not know and letting those with the right skills and expertise express themselves. He set stiff targets and would come down on his staff very hard if they failed to make the grade.
In his life outside Formula One, Briatore, who lives most of the time in London, has enjoyed the glamorous existence of a middle-aged playboy with several hundred millions in the bank and most of the toys, including a superyacht called Force Blue.
A regular subject of the diary columns of the Italian papers, he raised eyebrows last year when he married Elisabetta Gregoraci, the Italian model, who, at 30, is 29 years his junior. Since then the unlikely couple have been photographed in various glamorous locations with headlines to match their very contrasting physiques.
In addition to his work with Renault, Briatore has also launched the successful Billionaire clothing and nightclub brand designed to appeal to the super-rich or those who want to hang out with them.
Some have wondered why Briatore was prepared to risk all to win the Singapore Grand Prix. At heart he is a hugely competitive individual who was under great pressure from Renault to deliver results amid the ever-present danger that the company might withdraw from the sport. He was also anxious to demonstrate to Alonso that the team could produce a winning car, something that might have influenced the Spaniard's decision to stay with the team for another season.
Another unanswered question is why Briatore decided to sack Piquet in July when he must have known there was a risk the driver could retaliate. Some believe he was again under pressure from Renault, who could not understand why he was keeping faith with a driver many believe is not up to the task in Formula One.
Courtesy of The Times.
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