Briatore and the Alonso factor 28 Oct 2003
A decade ago Benetton boss Flavio Briatore was busy building the future of his team around one driver - Michael Schumacher. He won just a single race in '93 (the Portuguese Grand Prix, narrowly beating World Champion Alain Prost), but it was enough to set the momentum rolling for a serious Championship challenge the following year.
At the time Briatore was not held in high esteem by his contemporaries. The flamboyant Italian had arrived in Formula One racing at the end of 1989 with no motorsport experience, ousting the popular Peter Collins from the Benetton helm soon after, before brazenly snatching Schumacher from Jordan in the middle of the '91 season.
"I think it's true to say that none of us really understood Flavio when he first came into the sport," remarked one rival team boss. "Given how hard we had all worked to get to F1, it didn't seem fair that Flavio had just cruised in on the crest of a wave. He hadn't sweated enough blood for our liking."
What Briatore's rivals failed to realise was that he was introducing a whole new way of running a Formula One team. He all-but did away with a traditional reporting structure involving technical directors and commercial directors (although they remained as heads of departments), and placed greater onus on himself and his star driver.
By 1994, Schumacher was literally driving the entire Benetton team from both inside and outside the cockpit. Not only was he the driver, he was the motivator (thanks to his infectious enthusiasm), money-spinner (attractive to sponsors), human resources manager (a lure to new staff) and political mediator (wily and able to make up for Briatore's relative lack of experience).
Wind the clock forward to 2003 and you will notice remarkable similarities to '93. Briatore is now running Renault (to whom the Benetton Family sold out in 2000), but the factory is Benetton's old Enstone base in Oxfordshire. Pretty much the same infrastructure remains in place, and the same Briatore-inspired versatility still runs through the heart of its operations.
And, in keeping with his philosophy of old, Briatore is again placing his eggs in the basket of his leading driver, Fernando Alonso. Like Schumacher in '93, Alonso won just one race this year - in Hungary, where he became the youngest winner in the history of Formula One racing - and also like Schumacher, the Spaniard's God-like driving abilities have seen him become driver, money-spinner and the bait to attract new engineering staff to the team.
It is typical of Briatore's maverick character to defy the advice of the Formula One establishment and build his team's success around one driver. There are lots of negatives to a driver-centric team: he could leave (as Schumacher did from Benetton at the end of '95) or he could get injured (as Schumacher was in '99). But despite these real dangers, Briatore is determined to stick to his guns.
"Don't misunderstand me," he says. "Of course I understand that the car is a hugely important aspect of Formula One. I want the best people I can get to build my cars and it's just a question of how you go about achieving that. But I like to use the driver as the carrot to get people here. People want to work with the best Formula One driver in the world - it's normal."
And if the Alonso factor is anything like as effective as the Schumacher factor was a decade before, Renault will be regular challengers to the top three teams in 2004. They could even emerge as champions.
(The above is an edited extract from a much longer feature on Flavio Briatore, available exclusively in the November issue of Formula 1 Magazine.)