The following interview was conducted with Flavio Briatore before his recent hospitalisation after testing positive for coronavirus.
Colourful Italian business tycoon Flavio Briatore granted me an interview and I found him on typically forthright form on subjects ranging from his friend Michael Schumacher, Brexit and Donald Trump.
70‐ year‐old Briatore was a huge success in Formula One as a Commercial Director, transforming the fortunes of the Benetton team by luring a young Michael Schumacher from the now defunct Jordan Grand Prix team. Briatore now runs the elite entertainment and hospitality giant Billionaire Life.
Meeting Luciano Benetton
I asked him about meeting Luciano Benetton back in the 1970s, which I suggested was a pivotal moment in his life.
"Everybody needs somebody to help. At one point, everything was Benetton! Luciano was a successful guy. But nobody knew how big he was. But sure, my life changed completely."
It was Luciano Benetton that made Briatore Commercial Director of his Formula One team, a career path that Briatore hadn't previously considered:
"I didn’t have any intention to be in Formula One. I’d never seen a race in my life before.
"The team was basically supported totally by the Benetton family. There was no sponsor at all.
"I did it as a favour; for me, it was just two or three months to make these people understand what I'm talking about commercially, what needs doing.
"So (then) finance of the Benetton (team) became much, much better. Luciano asked me to continue to be Commercial Director. In the meantime, I fired everybody, all the team. I fired the Managing Director and everybody (close) to the Managing Director.
"It was in that way that we started to finance the team properly. To win, we needed a really good driver. And no driver wanted to come to us, because we were a T-shirt maker.
"You know the names of Ferrari, McLaren, Williams. I mean - to be a T-shirt maker! The team was called Benetton and it was kind of funny. But it was not funny for long, because we started to be competitive very quickly.
Recruiting Michael Schumacher
"And in 1992, we found Michael Schumacher. We fought to have Michael. In 1994, we won the first championship. At this point we are not the T-shirt maker anymore, but we are the team to beat.
"Michael was somebody very special. , independent of what he'd done on the track he was a very special person.
I reminded Briatore of when he was accused of match‐fixing in the Singapore Grand Prix in 2008 and his brief ban from the sport:
"We go to the Civil Court, we go to the High Court and we won the case. All this ban was good for was one month, because everything was manipulated. I didn't have any problems with the president of the federation, because the guy never liked me from day one. And he was already against us.
"He was suspending Schumacher for four races. And managing the Formula One like it was their own toy. Crazy, completely mad. And the High Court of Paris took away the ban completely."
Despite his huge success, he appeared to rule out any return to the sport:
"I was the one of the best, you know. Historically, when you’re talking about the principal of Formula One, the first guy that made Formula One different ‐ that was me.
"I won the race for three different teams. I won more at Monte Carlo than anybody. It would be ridiculous to go (back) there!"
Thoughts on Lewis Hamilton
I asked him his thoughts on British driver and six‐time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton, with his current total of 88 Grand Prix wins. Did he think Hamilton would overtake Schumacher's tally of 91, still the highest of all time?
He suggested it was difficult to compare them:
"The sport has changed. Now the car is much more technical, much more easy to drive. But you need the talent. If you put Hamilton in Ferrari, he's doing the same results as Charles Leclerc or Sebastian Vettel.
"At the time with Michael, the driver was much more important. Because the cars were much more equal. The difference was made by the driver. The driver was a gladiator."
He was comparatively dismissive of his football experience, when he briefly chose to get involved with west London team Queen's Park Rangers with his close friend and former Formula One Chief Executive, Bernie Ecclestone.
'Dubai is fantastic'
Briatore has chosen to set up several of his business ventures in Dubai. I asked him why the city lent itself so well to some of his brands:
"Dubai is fantastic. The town and the environment. It is the big real estate operation in the world. The fact we invest in it is because we believe in Dubai. We believe firmly in Dubai.
"The management of the restaurants are the best. We have the best people in Dubai."
I asked him to tell me about Billionaire Life, his business holding company that includes restaurants, luxury entertainment and where it fills a gap in the market:
"I decided to go back into food and beverage. And we had done the agreement with the Sumosan in the UK and it started working very well.
"In Billionaire Life, we did the experiment in Dubai. We have the food, you have a dinner show. This was our success key in Dubai, the dinner show. So we see this concept is working."
He felt strongly the that the food and drink industry would bounce back from COVID‐19, but he was emphatic that much of what surrounded the virus was manipulation:
"It is the politics. The people who want to stay in government. We have the worst government in Italy in our history. It is all propaganda.
"Not one of the ministers we have has worked one hour in life. These are our politicians ‐ zero experience! Before these people had the job in politics, they had no job."
Brexit 'the wrong decision'
On Brexit, Briatore was dismissive of the UK leaving the bloc without a deal:
"I don't think so, because in the UK, if you take away the Italian and the Polish, who will do the job? It was the wrong decision and I hope the UK survives because we have business there.
"Now we need to see the model of the business and decide if we stay or if we go."
On Donald Trump
He was equally convinced that his friend Donald Trump would be re‐elected as US President and that he was the right man for the job:
"We have record employment in America. We have records in Wall Street. I don’t know what people want more than that?
"He is a manager, not a politician. Like me, he's somebody that will tell you stuff straight."