Why has Alpine turned to its controversial past to try improving its future?

Thomas Maher
Flavio Briatore, Alpine, 2024 Spanish Grand Prix.

Flavio Briatore walks into the Alpine hospitality unit at the 2024 Spanish Grand Prix.

Alpine has appointed former team boss Flavio Briatore to an executive position within the F1 division of the company, reuniting the Italian with Enstone.

Following weeks of speculation, Alpine confirmed the 74-year-old Italian Flavio Briatore is returning to a position in F1 as an executive advisor to Renault Group CEO Luca de Meo, with his remit being a focus on the Formula 1 side of the company.

Who is Flavio Briatore, and why is he a controversial hire?

Briatore is a well-known figure in F1, having spent two decades near the top of the sport through his involvement with Benetton and Renault. Indeed, the Italian is directly responsible for having built up the Benetton team in the early 1990s and successfully lured Michael Schumacher away from Jordan after the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix.

Briatore was the team boss of Benetton as the team won the Constructors’ Championship in 1995, along with Schumacher’s Drivers’ Championship wins that season and in 1994.

There’s much that can be written about Briatore’s controversies, even away from F1, having been convicted of multiple counts of fraud during the 1980s – including a three-year prison sentence for fraud and conspiracy through his involvement in a team of ‘confidence tricksters’ setting up rigged gambling games. He escaped a prison stay by moving to the Virgin Islands to live as a fugitive, only returning to the EU when his convictions were quashed.

Having spent his time on the Virgin Islands setting up some Benetton stores and, having contributed directly to the clothing brand’s boom as director of their American operations, Briatore had become extremely wealthy even before setting foot in F1.

He became a major player on the grid in the mid-1990s, buying out the Ligier team as well as purchasing a share in Minardi, but his complete control of Benetton was relinquished when the board replaced him with David Richards in 1997 as the Enstone squad (having moved there in 1992) had slipped away from the front of F1.

Between 1998 and 2000, Briatore moved into work with the Supertec company, supplying Mechachrome and Playlife-badged Renault engines to several teams – Benetton included, as they became Benetton Playlife in 1999.

But, with Renault eager to make a comeback into F1, which came about in 2002, Briatore returned to F1 outright as team boss of Benetton in 2000. The next few years were seasons of rebuilding as Briatore oversaw Renault’s climb back up the grid – one contentious move being his firing of Jenson Button and bringing in Fernando Alonso, a driver he managed.

Briatore duly did build the team back up and, 10 years on from their title success with Schumacher, Alonso beat McLaren and Kimi Raikkonen to the 2005 title, and repeated the feat in 2006 against a resurgent Ferrari and Michael Schumacher.

While Briatore’s team found itself occasionally involved in technical controversies, such as the FIA’s discovery of the infamous ‘Option 13′ launch control setting on the 1994 B194 – a setting that was buried deep within the steering wheel software of the car.

With suspicions over the use of launch and traction control on the car, the rules’ wording was that traction control could not be used but didn’t outlaw the existence of software that could control it. With no proof the setting had been used, Benetton escaped any punishment.

Later that same year, a filter on the fuel hose used in a pitstop at Hockenheim was found to have been removed – directly contributing to the fire from which Jos Verstappen was fortunate to escape serious injury when his car ignited during a stop.

The filter removal allowed for a faster fuel rate, reducing the amount of time a car had to be stationary during a stop.

A less-controversial mass damper system was also outlawed from the Renault R25 during the 2005 championship, but it was the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix which was the moment of disgrace that changed the perception of Flavio Briatore entirely as a fair sportsman within F1.

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Briatore ordered his Renault driver Nelson Piquet Junior to crash deliberately during the Singapore race, timing the crash in such a way as to benefit teammate Fernando Alonso as the Spaniard had just pitted. The resulting Safety Car period moved Alonso into the lead, which he held onto until the chequered flag.

It took almost a year for the truth to come out, with Briatore attempting to force the whistleblowing Piquets (Piquet Junior having been dropped from his seat) to back down by commencing criminal proceedings against them for “false allegations” and an attempt to “blackmail the team” in a bid to save his own seat for 2009.

Just days later, Renault came forward to say it would not contest the charges being brought against it at a meeting of the World Motor Sport Council, and that Briatore and Pat Symonds had left the team. The Piquets also won a libel case taken as a result of the attempts of Renault and Briatore to undermine Piquet’s statements.

Briatore was given a lifetime ban from F1, with Symonds being given a five-year ban as the then-Renault senior engineer had also played a key role in organising the orchestrated crash.

Renault now hires Flavio Briatore to help guide CEO Luca de Meo

‘Crashgate’ has become a huge topic again in F1 recently, with Felipe Massa fighting the outcome of the 2008 title legally. The Brazilian driver ultimately lost out in the 2008 championship to Lewis Hamilton, having lost a huge chunk of points when Ferrari fluffed their pit stop under the Safety Car period triggered by the intentional crash.

That matter is currently going through the legal process, and it’s against this background that Alpine has decided to reunite with its controversial historical hero to try shape its future.

Briatore managed to get his lifetime ban overturned through a lengthy court battle over a decade ago but, aside from his involvement as a driver manager, has not been officially involved with an F1 team – until now.

Briatore, working directly for De Meo and Alpine, will focus on helping scout “top talents” and “providing insights on the driver market”, as the team looks to replace the departing Esteban Ocon and assess whether to continue with Pierre Gasly.

The company’s press release also stated Briatore will also “challenge the existing project by assessing the current structure and advising on some strategic matters within the sport”.

It’s perhaps no coincidence then that Briatore’s confirmation comes shortly after Renault’s reveal of a new power unit project for its automotive work.

HORSE Powertrains has been created in an equal partnership with Chinese manufacturer Geely, and will see the two sides collaborate on research, development, and manufacturing of all power unit-related components and hybrid technologies for drivetrains which will be used in the two parties’ automotive offerings.

At a time when rumours abound about the possibility Alpine could part ways with Renault power units, it was intriguing to note team boss Bruno Famin did not take the opportunity to completely shut down the rumour when he spoke to the media in Spain on Friday.

“I’m quite happy with what is being done in Viry. We are working well,” he said when asked about the 2026 power unit Renault is currently developing at its facility at Viry-Chatillon.

“We have quite high-level targets, I think, and for the time being we are optimistic in our ability to reach that target. And people are very focused now, for a lot of months, on this target. And we are all pushing to reach it.”

Asked to comment on the speculation regarding the possibility of a split between the F1 team and the F1 engine department, Famin clarified that he is “not optimistic” about the 2026 power unit as had been the question but said: “I’m just saying we are on track for getting our… We know we are going to have some problems, which is just normal with this kind of very complex project.

“And about the rumours, we just don’t comment on the rumours. We owe a lot of respect to everybody in Viry working on that project and the worst thing would be to comment on the rumours.”

As for the appointment of such a controversial figure as Briatore, Famin said that the historic misdeeds of Briatore within F1 are not of concern.

“I already answered questions about the past and I don’t really mind about the past,” he said.

“I’m always looking about the future and trying what we can get and to get our team better. And that’s really our goal.

“And what I see with having Flavio as an advisor of the team is the opportunity to have his experience and to help us. He has a very high level knowledge of Formula 1. He knows a lot of people. And I’m sure he will support us in developing the team faster and better. That’s all.

“There is a very clear goal to improve the competitiveness of the team as soon as possible and as fast as possible. And we are looking for strong support.

“We are very happy to have received, again, David Sanchez, technical director. Very good opportunity. We have been able to seize it very quickly.

“And the same thing for Flavio, I think the target is to make the team better as soon as possible and counting on the knowledge, the network, the influence of Flavio with us, it’s an asset and we are using all available assets and we will still look for new assets to make the team stronger.”

Why the need for Flavio Briatore?

Why, then, has Alpine turned to a man from its distant past – one who was herded out of the sport in ignominious fashion after the most egregious of sporting crimes – in order to try turning its fortunes around?

That’s a question Alpine hasn’t really addressed. Why are there no fresh-faced hires – internal or otherwise – that can lend their management and commercial skills to leading the team forward? Every other team seems to be able to… McLaren isn’t rehiring Ron Dennis, and nor did Ferrari circle back around for Jean Todt.

There’s no doubt that Briatore is a canny operator, one who is willing to engage in any tactic necessary in order to get the job done. The fact that these tactics occasionally skirted beyond the line of acceptability into the realm of a shameful lack of integrity is clearly not a concern for De Meo.

But Briatore’s remit could be seen as a step in De Meo’s re-alignment of the team as one that’s going up for sale – even if the official line remains that the team is not.

The establishment of HORSE Powertrains allows for a simple rejigging of operations at Viry-Chatillon, re-assigning the staff to work on hybrid power unit development for the automotive industry with minimal fuss and, presumably, no need for any lay-offs.

With the Renault power unit known to lag on horsepower compared to the rest, there are currently no customer teams lined up to take on its engines – earning itself no money, but all of the cost from the creation of a cutting-edge F1 power unit.

Briatore is rumoured to have been tasked with pursuing a Mercedes power supply for the Alpine F1 team for 2026 – to replace Merc’s Aston Martin customer deal – and the scaling back of the size of the Alpine F1 operation – by parting ways entirely with a re-assigned engine department – would make the entire package sleeker, lighter, and more palatable for a potential buyer – one who can either continue with whatever engine Briatore secures, or set about securing its own.

The big question is why Briatore is needed to help guide the team forward. What failings are there within the organisation that the hugely talented figures that have come through the team in the years since Briatore’s exit – including the likes of Cyril Abiteboul, whose Hyundai operation currently leads the World Rally Championship with Thierry Neuville, and Otmar Szafnauer, who successfully negotiated a Mercedes power unit supply deal while at Force India – are cast aside, but Briatore is seen as a Messiah-like figure to bolster its future?

Given the diplomatic truths pointed out by Otmar Szafnauer following his departure from the team last year, in which he said: “I think the senior management at Renault, the CEO, Luca de Meo, wants, as everyone does in Formula 1, success instantly and unfortunately, that’s not how it works in Formula 1,” the appointment of Briatore is bewildering and concerning – even if his no-nonsense approach does succeed in whipping Alpine into shape.

The disarray the team has been in over the last four years shows no signs of abating, even a year on from Szafnauer, Pat Fry, and Alan Permane – senior figures all departing. Turning around in order to pick up a guy who knew how to do it because no one else since has, just shows the team is meandering and lost in knowing how to develop talent or allow its hires to flourish.

If bringing him back, why not hand him the reins outright and allow him to set about building up a successor and bring a sense of direction to the team? Perhaps that is also a long-term vision De Meo has, but is willing to give Famin more time before making that decision.

Hiring Briatore – is it the last, desperate, roll of the dice from De Meo? Will it work in reigniting the team’s fortunes? If Briatore can’t do it – as flawed as he is – then the team’s prospects don’t look good.

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