Flamboyant Briatore occupies pole position among F1 characters

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2006, 12:00am

Most of this weekend's attention at the Chinese Grand Prix will be on Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher. The intense battle for the world title stepped up a notch at Monza when the German announced his retirement from the sport.

However, there was another important announcement recently that will actually have a bigger impact on the future of Formula One.

The Renault Formula One boss Flavio Briatore has decided to stay on with the team and has signed up for another two years.

Of course, he isn't a driver but he has the flamboyant lifestyle of one and he is a man who is immensely important to the sport.

He certainly hasn't lost his passion for motor racing and, more importantly, for winning. It got him into hot water after the Italian Grand Prix.

Renault, already furious that their mass damper system had been banned by the sports body, were further incensed at Monza when Alonso was penalised for blocking Ferrari's Fellipe Massa. Alonso declared Formula One was 'no longer a sport'. Briatore compared Formula One to the Italian football match-fixing scandal and said: 'This is a world championship that has been decided around a table.'

Whatever you feel about the subject, and there are many who feel the FIA, the governing body for motor racing events, has for a long time leaned towards Ferrari, wasn't it refreshing to see someone stand up and say what they felt in public?

Later, he rather lamely said his comments were 'jokey'. No action was taken but the Italian has learnt from Ferrari on how to fight your corner in the media.

He is certainly more of a playboy than any of the drivers in the paddock.

He has dated supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Heidi Klum, owns a luxurious pad in Kenya and a yacht that would rival any in the crammed Monaco harbour.

From his first job as a ski instructor to his present high-profile assignment, you can tell the Italian loves the high life.

He has a shrewd eye for business and it is this that will continue to make him a force to be reckoned with in the paddock.

He brought Michael Schumacher to Benetton and his first two world titles. When he returned to the Renault Formula One team six years ago, he showed what an astute talent spotter he was. He dumped Jenson Button for the young Fernando Alonso, who he also happened to manage.

The outcry, particularly in Britain, was huge but he said simply: 'Time will tell if I am wrong.'

You wonder if history is about to repeat itself, with Briatore bringing on board another talented young driver, also managed by him. This time it is Heikki Kovalainen.

The Finn has already spent a year testing for the team and his race credentials include coming a narrow second to Nico Rosberg in the GP2 series last year.

Another top driver that Briatore manages, Mark Webber, could well join him at Renault in 2008.

He's a man with influence and he's hell bent on making sure he uses it to keep Renault at the top.

What is perhaps most remarkable is his drive to succeed, even after suffering a cancer scare earlier this year. Briatore had an operation to remove a small tumour in his kidney.

He has said it was a wake-up call and he intends to make more time for himself. It's a sentiment that's completely understandable but luckily for Formula One, there's no sign of him taking his foot off the gas when he's on the pit wall. If there were a few more team bosses and drivers as flamboyant as Briatore, the sport would be infinitely richer for it.