Everyone makes mistakes

No matter how hard we try, none of us are perfect. Ask Ron Dennis. Ask Damon Hill. You might think that Michael Schumacher gives a close approximation to perfection when he is behind the wheel of his Benetton-Renault - and he certainly does - but Schumacher has made mistakes out of the cockpit in the last couple of years which will take him a very long time to get over. There are some mistakes which you cannot ever fix. You can argue that it doesn't matter what a racing driver does outside his cockpit but the fact is that it is important if no-one in the press corps - the people who make your image - is very keen on you. Schumacher started out as the golden boy of F1. I remember how pleased I was to see him doing well in the Jordan and then winning his first race in Spa a year later. But that is now history. When Michael retires from a race or fails to get pole position there are cheers in the press room. Michael probably feels victimized but, in a quiet moment sometime it would do him good to ask himself why that has happened. He will probably be unable to understand - most F1 people hate being criticized - and will decide that the press corps is made up of fools. And that if a foolish conclusion to reach - because the press are the guys who always get the last word.

Intelligent folk - and Michael is certainly one - learn from their mistakes and grow into better people as a result. That doesn't necessarily make you a better racing driver but it does make you better person. The ability to learn from one's mistakes is vital in the make-up of any great racing driver. Ayrton Senna never stopped learning but he still made mistakes.

We all make mistakes in life. Some cause permanent damage and some are just silly and the way I look at it, the silly ones don't matter. They are just good for a laugh. I try to avoid the nastier mistakes.

I made a wonderfully silly mistake on the way to Magny-Cours and I thought you might enjoy it. When one travels a lot one gets used to leaving things behind: I always check before leaving home that I have my passport, my tickets, my F1 pass and my credit cards. If you have them you can survive anything. Everything else is replaceable. Over the years I have forgotten many things: a hairbrush, sunglasses, a pair of dress shoes for an important dinner - wearing a suit and training shoes does not look very chic. I have even forgotten to take the address of the hotel at which I was staying. There was one occasion when I actually left the press room in the middle of the night after a race in Portugal and left my computer behind. I have gone to the wrong airport to catch a flight. I have even gone on the wrong day.

But at Magny-Cours I reckon I achieved the ultimate in forgetfulness. I left my suitcase behind. Now this may sound ridiculous but I was travelling by car with my wife and kid, planning to visit both the French and British GPs with a quick holiday between the two. And so, having loaded a bunch of suitcases, buckets and spades, cots and suchlike, and having everything fitting beautifully, we drove away - leaving my baggage sitting in the hallway. I guess it will be there when I get home so I can take it to Germany with me instead... Since then I have been living from shop to shop. I probably needed a new wardrobe anyway.

Anyway, I made a mistake, but I reckon the man who made the biggest mistake of them all at Magny-Cours was Benetton boss Flavio Briatore - the man who wears his cap back-to-front, has a suntan and hugs Michael Schumacher when the German wins races. Flavio likes a high-profile life. He likes to read about himself in the papers, watch himself on television and general keep the name in the limelight. This is not necessarily intelligent as the more people know you the more they want to know about you and the closer the scrutiny. Before Four Weddings and a Funeral no-one would have cared a jot about a bloke called Hugh Grant and what he likes to do in the back of a car. Before Flavio took over Benetton Formula no-one has ever heard of him as a businessman. But here we are today with Flavio being interviewed left, right and center and regaling us all with tales of the brilliant marketing and management which has made Benetton the team it is today. How doing it the Briatore way is the only way to do business. He'll be writing books about it next...

You might think that all this has made Flavio a popular man in F1. I was amazed the other day when a bunch of French lawyers acting on behalf of a Irish company, owned by a Gibraltar company, run by Swiss solicitors said that they would be happy to lift the injunction on Minardi if Giancarlo Minardi decided to drop his legal actions against Briatore relating to the sudden change of mind by Mugen Honda last year. The Japanese had signed a contract with Minardi and then suddenly announced that there was an exclusive deal with Ligier instead - Briatore's spare team...

Minardi was upset - and that was not really surprising because he had struggled for so long in F1 that the chance to get his hands on a factory engine deal was worth its weight in gold. So he began legal action and a judge in Ravenna agreed that he had a good case when it became known that Briatore had signed a letter agreeing to settle any claims by Minardi against Mugen Honda.

So it was a bit strange that an Irish company should be wanting to help Briatore out of the potential legal difficulties he faces. Gradually, of course, it became clear that Flavio was the man behind the Irish company. Golly, we thought, what a great man, keeping all those people employed to run his various companies - and in lots of different countries. It must be costing an awful lot of money to pay all the company taxes to all the different governments.

When given such a generous offer the ungrateful Mr. Minardi said something in Italian which is vaguely equivalent to what one would say to a door-to-door leper trying to sell you Encyclopedia Britannica and instead of dropping all his cases went to the French court to get the Irish/Gibraltarian/Swiss injunction lifted. Briatore, therefore, will presumably still have to answer all the charges in the Ligier-Mugen Honda affair - unless by some small chance Minardi goes out of business before anything comes to court.

Certainly having all your equipment seized and being subjected to the bad press resulting from the seizure cannot have helped Minardi's stability. It is fortunate, however, that the team has the steady hand and financial backing of steel baron Giuseppe Lucchini behind it. The money demanded by Flavio's Irish company was petty cash to Mr. Lucchini, so why did Flavio bother with the dramatic seizure when a phone call would probably have solved the problem. One has to ask these questions as the impression in the paddock was that Briatore was trying to put Minardi out of business in order to avoid the possible legal problems which could arise from the law suits.

Minardi may not be very successful in F1 but he is a solid member of the F1 fraternity. People like him and they respect him because he is a racer and a survivor. He has always been a racer. When Briatore was still selling jumpers in New York, running nightclubs or doing all the other colorful things he has done in his life, Minardi was building a race team, working his way up through F2 and struggling to survive in F1. He loves the sport as do Bernie Ecclestone, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis and all the other team owner - except Flavio who seems to take great pride in telling people that F1 is just a "marketing" exercise and that he has no interest in the sport.

Attacking one of the good old boys of F1 racing has made people start to look at Briatore in a different light. Perhaps, they are saying, he is getting too big for his moccasins. If he will go after a Minardi, perhaps he will go after an Ecclestone or a Williams.

I do not think we should worry too much about all this - although I do believe the controversies which Flavio so loves are damaging to the image of the sport. Briatore is an outsider. There have been many like him in the past, although not all were as high-profile or as successful. They have, one by one, disappeared. In order to survive in this sport you need to love it and when the chips are down you need friends. Right now Benetton and Briatore are riding on the wave of success but - as Ron Dennis is now finding out - when the going gets tough, it is better to have friends. I think Flavio will find few allies when the chips are down.

In a few years time when he has gone we will probably be saying: "What was the name of that guy who ran Benetton who wore his hat backwards?" and some may care to trace his downfall back to the day in Magny-Cours when a bunch of French lawyers acting on behalf of a Irish company, owned by a Gibraltar company, run by Swiss solicitors gave the game away...

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