PEOPLE: FLAVIO BRIATORE

Name: Flavio Briatore
Nationality: Italy

Flavio Briatore, Malaysian GP 2005

Flavio Briatore, Malaysian GP 2005 

 © The Cahier Archive

One of F1's highest profile characters in the 1990s, Briatore has faded from the Grand Prix scene in recent years although he keeps in the gossip columns thanks to his relationship with model Naomi Campbell and through his activities as a nightclub owner in San Tropez.

From Cuneo in northern Italy, Briatore grew up in the mountains and worked both as a ski instructor and in the restaurant trade. He has, however, told people that he served with the French Foreign Legion, while early Benetton F1 press releases suggest that he even did some rally driving. Whatever the case he was definitely working on the Italian stock exchange in the early 1970s - at a time when the Benetton family empire was beginning to grow - and he met Luciano Benetton at that time. In 1979 Benetton opened its first five stores in the United States and three years later Briatore became "the Benetton Group's principal representative in the United States".

There is no doubt that Benetton's North American operations were a huge - but short-term - financial success, thanks to the company's unusual franchising system. Independent shop owners sign leases on shops, convert the stores and buy the products. There are no royalties paid, but Benetton does not buy back unsold goods.

By 1988 Benetton had 800 stores in North America. Briatore - taking a percentage on every deal he organized - was a rich man and he soon developed a taste for the jet-set lifestyle. He ferried backwards and forwards between New York and the Virgin Islands tax haven, he became a partner in the famed Regine's nightclub and a was a flamboyant member of the Italian-American business circles.

The Benetton USA boom was short-lived, store owners soon began to complain about competition from other Benetton stores - in New York City, for example, there were seven stores on Fifth Avenue alone - and soon they began to close down. Soon only 200 stores remained. As the bubble burst, Briatore began looking for "a new challenge". In November 1988 he spectated at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. He professed no interest in the sport but was nonetheless appointed commercial director of Benetton's F1 team. It was not long before he had ousted the old team management. His theory was simple: he raised sponsorship and used it to buy the best F1 people. He hired engineer John Barnard to revamp the team's technical structure. After the pair fell out he began a new liaison with Tom Walkinshaw, who had spotted a talented German driver in sportscar racing - Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher won the World Championship in 1994 in controversial circumstances. At the same time Briatore acquired Ligier in order to get hold of the French team's supply of Renault engines. Under pressure from the FIA, he handed over Ligier to Walkinshaw and tried to run Benetton himself but this was not a success. Schumacher moved to Ferrari and was followed by some of the top Benetton engineers. The team gradually slipped backwards.

Always keen on making money for himself Briatore bought Minardi at the end of 1996. He tried to sell it to British American Tobacco but his partners Gabriele Rumi and Giancarlo Minardi refused to do a deal and so he sold the team to them. The following year he was dropped by Benetton and replaced by David Richards.

Briatore organized a deal to buy old Renault engines from Mecachrome and marketed them under the Supertec name - making a great deal of money in the process in 1998, 1999 and 2000. He returned to managing Benetton when Renault took over the team in 2000.

Briatore has had more than his fair share of luck over the years, not least when a bomb went off outside his London home.

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