Flamboyant F1 boss Briatore falls from grace

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With his blue-tinted shades, his flowing grey hair and a dapper dress sense Flavio Briatore had the air of an ageing rock star about him.

Even by Formula One's glitzy standards the ebullient Italian, who had as many friends as enemies, was hard to miss as he strolled down the grid before races.

The visual impact he made was mirrored by the huge impact he had on the sport in a career spanning the past two decades - a love affair that came to a bumpy end on Wednesday. The man who oversaw four world drivers' titles, a brace apiece for Michael Schumacher at Benetton and Fernando Alonso at Renault, could never in his darkest moments have forseen such a shabby and ignominious end to his time in F1.

The unconventional Briatore's fall from grace was as sudden as it was unexpected.

Last Friday he cut a defiant figure as he announced criminal proceedings against former driver Nelson Piquet Jr and the Brazilian's father, Nelson Piquet Sr, a former world champion, for making false allegations and blackmail.

At Monza he held forth denying all the accusations against him, calling claims that he had conspired to get Piquet Jr to crash at last year's Singapore Grand Prix "outrageous lies".

Four days later, Renault effectively held their hands up to the 'crime', saying they would not be contesting the allegations at the FIA's inquiry in Paris next week.

That sensational statement was accompanied by the announcement that Briatore and Pat Symonds, Renault's director of engineering, had quit the team.

Renault's appearance in Paris would not have been the first time Briatore had been summoned to FIA headquarters as he was associated with various controversies during the 1990s when Schumacher drove for the team, then owned and named Benetton.

It was with the Italian fashion house that Briatore made much of his fortune as director of the firm's American operation, a fortune that enabled him to purchase (in no particular order) a super yacht, a Mayfair restaurant, a mythic nightclub in Sardinia, a fashion label and a pharmaceutical company.

And it was with Benetton that he became immersed in F1 as first commercial and then managing director in the late 1980s.

Success came quickly with Benetton driver Schumacher winning the 1994 and 1995 titles and the team the '95 constructors' crown.

In its reincarnation as Renault with Briatore's new prodigy Alonso at the wheel, the good times came back with the young Spaniard winning the championship in 2005 and 2006.

The espionage scandal with McLaren in 2007 damaged the team even though it escaped punishment, but nothing like as seriosuly as 'crashgate'.

Passionate and outspoken, Briatore was not afraid to raise his head over the parapet - when the F1 budget cap row was raging earlier in the season he threatened to withdraw his team unless FIA president Max Mosley dropped his controversial plans.

".... the image and the integrity of those who invest in F1 would be degraded," the outspoken Italian said of Mosley's plans - ironic words given the nature of Briatore's parting.

(AFP via China Daily September 18, 2009)

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