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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Flavior Briatore Speaks About QPR (and Other Things) "Why He Loves Loftus Road"

The Times/Kaveh Sokhekol - February 27, 2008
Fast cars, models and . . . QPR. 'In life, you need to be happy'
The Italian with the playboy image on why he loves Loftus Road

Flavio Briatore wants to get married and settle down one day, but for the time being the 57-year-old is happy running a Formula One team, owning a football club and dating a supermodel. Growing up in northern Italy in the 1950s and 1960s, Briatore never dreamt about owning nightclubs and restaurants and rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. “I never wanted to be anything,” he said in his Knightsbridge office, overlooking Harrods. “I just wanted to be happy.”

A chance meeting in the late 1970s with Luciano Benetton, the founder of the Italian clothing company, changed his life and catapulted him into a world of fast cars and big business. This year he is planning to open a branch of his Billionaire nightclub chain in Mayfair and a Billionaire boutique is also about to open on Sloane Street in Central London. But when he gets out of bed at 6am every day, he has more than clothes and nightclubs on his mind. There is the Formula One team he has to run and the football club he has bought with Bernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal, two of the richest men in the UK.

“I wake up very early,” Briatore said. “I wake up when everyone else is going to bed and I start work straight away - why waste two hours reading newspapers? Then I work all day and I never go out during the week. In London, maybe I go out once a month, but only to places I own. I never go to someone else's restaurant or bar.”

February is a busy month for Briatore. The Formula One season is about to start and he is determined to get things right at his Renault team. Last season was a write-off and he winced when talking about finishing a distant third behind Ferrari and BMW Sauber in the constructors' championship (after McLaren's disqualification) thanks to an uncompetitive car that did not get to grips with the Bridgestone tyres that all teams had to use.

According to Briatore, the managing director, this year will be different because Fernando Alonso, the Spaniard who won two world drivers' titles with the team in 2005 and 2006, is back after a miserable year at McLaren and the new R28 car is a vast improvement on last year's model.

“Renault is back and we are confident that we will be protagonists this year and fighting for places on the podium,” Briatore said. “For me, Fernando is the best. He gets bad publicity in England because last year he was fighting with Lewis Hamilton, but it is always like this in England.

“There will be no problems between Fernando and Lewis this season because they are very intelligent. The problem between them was not personal animosity, it was competition and the fact Fernando felt McLaren were not treating him the same as Hamilton. For Fernando it was a team problem not a Hamilton problem.”

The feud between Hamilton and Alonso may have been bad for McLaren, but it has not done Formula One any harm. Propelled by Ecclestone's relentless drive for new opportunities, races are springing up in countries such as Singapore, China, Bahrain and Turkey, and there is talk of an Indian Grand Prix.

“What Bernie has done is sensational,” Briatore said. “When he was talking about going to China ten years ago everyone was laughing, but Bernie has a vision and what he has done to develop Formula One in countries with economic potential is amazing. Next we have to look for opportunities in India, Korea and Russia.”

Briatore made his name in Formula One at Benetton, where he became the manager in 1990 and led the team to two drivers' world titles, with Michael Schumacher at the wheel. Some people get into Formula One because they love cars; Briatore loves the spectacle, but not the cars. “I'm not excited about cars. It takes me 15 minutes to get in and out of a Ferrari or a Porsche,” he said - and in London he is driven around by his chauffeur in an unremarkable Nissan.

Like most Londoners, though, one of his pet hates is Ken Livingstone's dreaded congestion charge, along with the traffic, traffic wardens and pollution. “The charge is very expensive,” Briatore said. “It's a little bit too much. Some people need their cars every day. I don't drive myself because of this. I have a driver. Everyone wants to reduce pollution, but you also have to improve public transport and make sure that the train is on time.”

The way Briatore sees it, London could do with someone who listens to people and then makes decisions, in the same way that he says he does at Renault and Queens Park Rangers, the Coca-Cola Championship club he bought last year with Ecclestone and Mittal. Briatore dismissed the rumour that he thought someone was trying to sell him a restaurant when he took a phone call from an associate who wanted to see if he was interested in buying QPR, but he accepts that the deal has raised eyebrows.

Why buy a struggling Championship club when the gang of three could have bought any club they wanted and be rubbing shoulders with Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, and the other big hitters in the Barclays Premier League? “The centre of football is England,” Briatore said. “If you want to do Formula One you need to be in England. If you want to make champagne you go to France. If you want to make ham you go to Modena. Location is important and at the moment the best football is in England.
“Anyway, I met Mr Abramovich when we played Chelsea in the FA Cup and I have a lot of respect for him. I have known him for a long time and we were joking about why anyone would want to run a Formula One team and a football club.”

But why QPR? Why not Fulham or Reading or any other top-flight club rumoured to be for sale? “We prefer something that is more of a challenge,” he said. “In the last 20 years I speak to Bernie at least five or six times a day. We are in the same business, we travel together, he is my best friend. Whatever I do, Bernie is always part of it. We have a very good understanding and Lakshmi Mittal is also a very great person. He's a very smart businessman. It is great to have these kind of partners, but more importantly it's very important to have these kind of friends. Last year I used to go to ski every weekend, now I stay in London because we all go to watch QPR together with our friends.”

There is a picture of some of those friends at Loftus Road - Elisabetta Gregoracci, the Italian model from the Wonderbra advertisements, to whom Briatore is reportedly engaged, Naomi Campbell and other assorted models and “It” girls - on the wall of Briatore's office next to the Formula One trophies and two old black and white photographs of the 1908 QPR team.

So, is that happy-go-lucky Italian boy, who grew up without a care in the world, happy with his Formula One team, his football club and all those supermodels? “First of all, QPR doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the fans and the shareholders,” he said. “In life you need to be happy with yourself and the job you are doing. Just because you are in F1 is not going to make you happy. Whatever you are doing, if you give 100 per cent then you will be happy. If you are a butler, or a waiter, you have to work hard to have success and then one day you might make it to F1 or have a football team.
“It is important as well that you meet the right girl in your life and fall in love. Maybe for me it has been a little bit more difficult, but you never know.”

Life in the fast lane

Flavio Briatore is the managing director of the Renault Formula One team and the co-owner of Queens Park Rangers. The 57-year-old also owns the Cipriani restaurant in Central London, a pharmaceutical company and holiday resorts in Italy and Kenya, as well as the Billionaire nightclub in Sardinia and Billionaire Couture.

He has been romantically linked with supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Heidi Klum and, according to Italian newspapers, he is engaged to Elisabetta Gregoracci, the 27-year-old Wonderbra model.

April 12, 1950 Born in Verzuolo, Italy

1968 Leaves school with a diploma in land surveying and works as a ski instructor and restaurant manager before moving to Milan to work at the Italian stock exchange

1979 Appointed director of Benetton’s operations in the United States.

1990 Appointed manager of Benetton F1.

1995 Michael Schumacher wins his second world drivers’ title and Benetton win constructors’ title

1997 Briatore leaves Benetton

1999 Briatore becomes Fernando Alonso’s manager

2000 Briatore becomes managing director of Renault’s Formula One team.

2006-7 Alonso wins world drivers’ championship. Renault win constructors’ title.

2007 Briatore buys QPR with Bernie Ecclestone.

Two cars, one passion

Flavio Briatore is the managing director of the Renault Formula One team, but he is not a fan of fast cars. He is driven around London by his chauffeur in a Nissan and his favourite car is a blue Fiat Cinquecento he bought in 1968...." The Times

Also May 21 2006 Times "The Big Interview" with Briatore

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