La Dolce Vita: What really drives Flavio Briatore?

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The yacht, the women, the football club, the F1 team – he's got the lot. But what drives Flavio Briatore? Susie Rushton finds out

By two o'clock in the afternoon, the smooth asphalt of the Autodromo Nazionale in the royal park at Monza has become a treacherous river of rainwater. The huge grandstand next to the starting grid offering them little shelter, about 500 Formula One fans in plastic capes cheer on 20 cars – if these overbred mechanical beasts can be described as such – careering around the circuit in qualifying for the 78th Italian Grand Prix.

Suddenly, a French radio commentator in the media room starts yelling into his mic. The huge trackside screens flash up images of Lewis Hamilton, leading the drivers' championship in his silver McLaren Mercedes, as he spins off on a bend. It is the defining moment of an afternoon of horrendous downpours, shock results and the ear-splitting wail of multimillion-pound engines.

But down on the pit wall, where the bosses of the 10 F1 teams watch columns of numbers cascading down computer screens, one man slumps on his stool. He wears the shirt and matching gilet of the Renault team. Equally as impassive when team's younger driver records a poor lap time as when its star, Fernando Alonso, puts in a quick one, the tall Italian stares at his screen, arms folded, long legs wide apart. I've seen it all, says his easy slouch. I'm king of this place, declare those splayed legs and crossed arms.

Every four laps, one of his drivers pulls into the pit lane. The bizarre choreographed scene that follows resembles a baby being taken into intensive care by a squadron of Power Rangers as a dozen mechanics in jumpsuits and reflective visors crawl all over the tiny car, pumping fuel through a thick silver hose or blowing industrial-strength hairdryers into various apertures. Ten seconds later, the engine lets out an ear-splitting scream as the car is released from the mechanics' embrace and shoots back out on to the track. Only for the briefest moment does Flavio Briatore, the managing director of Renault's F1 team, glance over his shoulder at the car, face expressionless. Giant headphones are clamped over his ears, and his mane of collar-length silver hair is curled into ringlets by the damp.

When his marvellously tanned face is broadcast on screens around the track for a moment, two eight-year-old French boys standing near me in the paddock, F1's "backstage" area, see the famous blue-tinted glasses. They yelp with delight: "C'est Flavio!" they exclaim.

Fulfilling the roles of celebrity, motorsport supremo and paternal team-boss, Briatore's schedule at Monza is a succession of brief meetings. Some of them are of the motivational, back-slapping variety (Briatore manages several drivers in addition to his Renault responsibilities); others appear more high-powered, like the 10-minute assignation he has with a suited, doddery-looking Max Mosley. Every time Briatore strides into the Renault team's motorhome – the huge café-cum-office parked in the middle of the paddock – all eyes swivel towards him. As he charges in and out of his office, his assistant, a petite Italian with an anxious manner, attempts to keep track of his movements via mobile phone (calls from her boss have a special ringtone; it's the Godfather theme).

By the time I'm called into the inner sanctum – "You're here to interview me? Wonderful!" – I've seen Briatore work the charm on everybody, from the young fans who stop him to pose for a photograph, to the Renault hostesses who bring him breakfast (white toast and marmalade), to the gawping corporate guests ushered down from the hospitality suite to meet The Guy Who Used To Date Naomi Campbell.

Inside Briatore's cosy office, it's all cream suede banquettes and matching cream table. Three empty espresso cups are arrayed in front of him. Briatore half reclines, still wearing his Renault shirt (made-to-measure, as are his jeans) with one eye on the English Premier League football match playing on a massive flatscreen. "Every day in Formula One is different – the weather, different conditions, the car – it's never the same," he says, when I ask him if he still gets a thrill out of motorsport. "And because every time it's different, I think it's still exciting."

Yes, he does have a good line in sporting platitudes. Otherwise, though, Briatore is not the typical sports mogul. In a nepotistic industry where most managers are former drivers or ex-engineers (or their relations), Briatore is a businessman first and foremost. He just happens to be selling a spectator sport – with a team budget estimated at $324m per year. "The races are quite boring," he says, waving one arm, "and not only because there isn't enough overtaking."

The Renault F1 boss couldn't care less about the mind-blowing technology beneath the streamlined skin of a Grand Prix car. "I don't love the cars. For me, a car is transport. For me, you go in a car because you want to go from one point to another point." And sometimes you don't even bother doing that – this morning, Briatore travelled from his hotel in Milan to the racetrack by helicopter. Of course he did.

With a fortune estimated at £120m, Flavio Briatore is not the richest man in Formula One – but he is certainly the sport's most flamboyant. With neither inherited wealth nor academic brilliance, he has built for himself the ultimate male fantasy existence. His trophy collection includes a yacht, the £68.2m Force Blue, a converted icebreaker with 12 suites and an on-board Turkish bath; the exclusive Sardinian beach club Billionaire, which each summer plays host to a flotilla of celebrities and super-rich Russians; the Twiga beach club in Tuscany; and the Lion under the Sun spa resort in Kenya, which was recently hired out in its entirety by Bono.

A year ago, Briatore added an English football club, Queens Park Rangers, after masterminding a £14m takeover with two far wealthier partners, the F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone and the steel magnate (and Britain's richest man) Lakshmi Mittal. A partner in the celeb-friendly Cipriani restaurants, Briatore also has his own menswear line, Billionaire Couture, which sells £500 jeans with real gold buttons and monogrammed slippers (the Sloane Street flagship store is due to open next month).

Then there are the women. And, boy, what women. Naomi Campbell famously had the benefit of Briatore's charms for two years before the two split up after a series of rows (although they remain friends). Flav followed that up with another supermodel, Heidi Klum, with whom he had a daughter, Leni. Another consort, the Italian TV presenter Adriana Volpe, wasn't quite super-league but had the requisite statistics.

In June, he broke a thousand models' hearts, taking himself off the market to marry Elisabetta Gregoraci, another minor Italian glamour-girl – and one-time Wonderbra "face" – who has 28 years to Flavio's 58. The marriage took place at the Santo Spirito in Sassia church in Rome; Fernando Alonso drove the wedding car; the guests included the socialite Tamara Beckwith and Silvio Berlusconi, two friends who, one suspects, exemplify the range of Briatore's social circle. "We only had 350 people. I knew everyone," he says, and I believe him.

If his "small" wedding practically shut down Rome, the Italians did not begrudge him that. "Every Italian boy wants to be Flavio," explains Paola Jaccobi, an editor at the Italian edition of Vanity Fair. "The models, the yacht, the lifestyle. And the Italian housewives – they think he's bel'uomo [a good-looking man]."

But this summer, as ordinary Italians felt the pinch of the global economic downturn, Briatore's gilt-edged image began to look out of step with the times. The first salvo came from an unexpected quarter. Last month, the far-right Italian politician Daniela Santanchè launched an attack on one of his most high-profile business interests.

"With people struggling to get by, Billionaire should be consigned to history," Santanchè declared of the extravagant Porto Cuervo club where Methuselahs of Cristal sell for £35,000 a pop. "I myself have put my Aston Martin in the garage and get around in a Fiat 500." Curiously, Santanchè herself owns a 10 per cent share of the Billionaire club.

"She's a politician, and she'll do anything to get in a newspaper," Flavio says, with a mirthless laugh. "She's actually a friend of mine. But you know, she feels she needs to have more... visibility. She has more Hermès Kelly bags than the whole shop. And," he says, pounding the table with a brown fist, "if she wants to talk about not wanting to spend money, she shouldn't charter a boat for £80,000 a week, like I know she did." That's her told, then.

Porto Cuervo was the scene for another PR embarrassment this summer. At the inauguration of his new waterfront restaurant, Billionaire Rubacuori, newspapers reported that Flavio and friends attempted to disembark at the packed beach in dinghies, only to be pelted with sand and water by indignant ordinary Italians whose sunbathing was disturbed by the imperious landing. "Never 'appened," he now insists. "A group of Russians – friends of mine – were attacked by two or three idiots. But it was not my boat. They were visiting my place. I was having lunch! Normally, when you arrive at the beach there's a channel with buoys, but somebody took the channel away. But it wasn't me. It was a full lie."

He thumps the table again. "You know, in Italy people are loving me." He flashes his pleasantly crooked smile. "For me, it's very difficult to go to the beach without taking two or three hundred pictures a day [with fans]. This is why I don't go out. I stay on the boat. You know, it's a lot of jealousy. Especially the Italians this summer; everybody was playing [their wealth] down because of the crisis, this and that..."

Neither will a pesky banking crisis prevent Briatore rolling out the ostentatious Billionaire franchise around the world. An outpost is planned for Mayfair. Doesn't the economic situation affect his businesses at all? He claims not, offering the Briatore economic world-view: "You know, everything that did well this summer was either high quality – or low price. Everything that's affected is in the middle. This summer at Billionaire, we had the best customers in our history. Less people, yes, less people – but better quality."

Flavio hasn't always had the best in life. Born in Verzuolo in the Italian Alps on 12 April 1950, he comes from a family of schoolteachers, and his brother is a farmer. After scraping through high school with the lowest grades, he worked as a ski instructor and then a restaurant manager.

Briatore's entrée into business was as a travelling insurance salesman. By the 1970s, he was working at the stock exchange in Milan. It was here, in 1974, that he met Luciano Benetton, founder of the global clothing company. It was also during this period that Briatore was convicted of fraud and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison – a fate he escaped by fleeing to the Virgin Islands. In interviews, Briatore has generally preferred to emphasise his phenomenal period of success with Benetton in the 1980s. Appointed director of the group's American arm in 1979, he took charge of an unorthodox style of retail franchising that would make the T-shirt brand one of the boom stories of the era – and would make him an extremely wealthy man.

In 1989, Luciano Benetton took his protégé to a Grand Prix, in Adelaide, Australia. "It was really the first time I saw a Formula One car. But I was impressed about everything, really; the car, the facility. By that time, Benetton had just arrived in Formula One, and Luciano wanted somebody to be in charge of the merchandising side."

On the airplane back to Europe, the two men discussed what they had seen. "I was living in the US at the time. Formula One wasn't popular there. I wasn't a fan. But Luciano convinced me to at least do one year and see what happens. And little by little, I was in charge of the whole team."

The former fashion executive brought with him a fresh, and ruthless, approach. Not only did he spot the potential of rising star Michael Schumacher – persuading him to leave the Jordan team and join Benetton after his first F1 race in 1991 – but he also set about applying his entrepreneurial skills to a sport hitherto dominated by engineers. "I don't think you need to understand engineering if you are in charge of a group of people. If you're in charge of Ferrero, you're not eating chocolate every day," he says, allowing himself a smile at his own joke. "You see so many drivers getting involved in management of Formula One, and they fail – because managing is completely different from having knowledge of the business. Managing is... a little bit more complicated." Seasoned F1 watchers acknowledge that Briatore is not only charming but a talented delegater. Indeed, when I ask him if he's involved in the creative direction of Billionaire Couture, he frankly admits that he leaves all that to a partner (tailor Angelo Galasso of Interno 8).

The cut-throat tactics of the F1 power players in the 1990s were down to a circle of men, including Briatore, who were dubbed "the Piranha Club". "He did not fit in at all [at the beginning]," recalls Joe Saward, editor of the website grandprix.com, who's reported on the sport for 25 years. "He wasn't a racing person and his ideas about how things were done were very different to what had come before. But... [eventually] people began working to Flavio's rules." Briatore understood better than most the mechanics of sponsorship deals; he helped to push F1 towards its current hyper-commercial state.

His team got results on the track, too, with Schumacher winning the drivers' championship twice. In 1995, the team won the constructors' championship.

When Renault bought the Benetton team in 2000, it hired Briatore as part of the deal. At Renault, his record has been slightly less glittering – although he did spot the potential of two-time champion Fernando Alonso.

And yet, Briatore's personal stock has never been higher. "It is all about Brand Flavio now," says Saward, who remembers Briatore courting the paddock press in his early years while wearing his cap back to front. "He loves being a celebrity – and in F1 he's always in the spotlight. It's like a drug, he can't give it up."

Although Briatore assesses his F1 commitments as taking "90 per cent" of his time, for the past year his attention has been diverted by a new passion, Queens Park Rangers, the west London football club (now in the second tier). Why did this lifelong Juventus fan buy QPR? "If you want to do football in the business way, England is the only place. I am a Juventus fan, and it's very cheap for me – I just buy a ticket and go and see a match. You don't buy a club because you like it."

Much has been made of the fancy makeover Briatore and his wealthy friends have given to QPR's Loftus Road ground. The stadium now has its own Cipriani restaurant, and Briatore recently declared that QPR would host something he termed "boutique football". Er, which means? "It's like... if you have a hotel, a boutique hotel, that only has 50 rooms, while a grand hotel has 400 rooms. We only have 20,000 seats, and we will offer the best service to the fans... you know, it's going to look amazing."

It probably will, although I can't help thinking that it will be sponsors and Flav's celebrity pals, not Super Hoops fans, who will be tucking into Cipriani's signature bellinis and beef carpaccio. Despite aiming to make it to the Premier League "within two years", Briatore isn't splashing the cash on star players. "Well, Manchester City put the players before the club," he purrs, referring to the spending spree by that club's new Arab owners. "We have a different approach. It takes time. I know people think that QPR is a very rich football club. It has very rich shareholders, but it's not because you have very rich shareholders that the company is rich." Which, roughly translated, means: that's your lot.

Even if he won't put any more sports trophies in his cabinet this year, 2008 has been momentous for Briatore in one respect: the bachelor boy got married (for the second time; the first was short-lived). Does he feel any different? Earlier, his new bride, demure in an ankle-length skirt, had had lunch in the Renault motorhome, looking like any other supportive, if slightly bored, wife.

I expected a heartbreaker with Briatore's form to have a suitably romantic response to this question. But even here, he is pragmatic. "It feels different because you think about two. Before, it was myself and myself. When I had dinner I only had to organise myself. When I travelled, it was by myself." There is a hint that the constant upgrading of new models left Briatore wanting. "With every relationship you lose a lot of time as well."

Perhaps Gregoraci has reformed this former Casanova, but it also seems possible that a brush with mortality played a part; in 2007, Briatore was diagnosed with kidney cancer. "Maybe what you learn is that you shouldn't lose time with somebody you basically don't like." Apparently recovered – "I was lucky, I had a check-up that prevented it" – Briatore says he's now more careful with his health, but it's hard to see how this peripatetic, relentlessly hard-working existence is wholesome. "I've got used to living with all this pressure. Maybe because I like it." He sounds resigned. But a Milanese friend tells me later that Flavio and Elisabetta had danced into the night at Giorgio Armani's Privé club the previous evening, so he is having some fun.

It's often been said that Briatore is a sore loser, that he is obsessed with winning. "I used to get in bad mood [if we lost]," he admits. "Two years ago, I would get upset if we finished second. Now I'm happy if we're fourth."

He glances at his expensive watch (his other hairy wrist is circled by two black diamond bracelets), and on cue the phone rings. "Mario! I wanted to talk to you earlier but I didn't want to interrupt your lunch!" he yells down his phone, and with the briefest of nods the interview is over. Flavio Briatore must get back to the gruelling business of being the flashiest playboy in the paddock.

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