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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Briatore Profiled....on QPR...QPR Spending...and Formula One Coming Before Football

[Most of the article is about Briatore and Motor Racing (and his personal life). Last couple of paragraphs about QPR and football.]

'Lewis is terrific but I would always choose Fernando'
The Renault principal says that McLaren should have shown loyalty to Alonso, as he intends to do this year

The Guardian - Donald McRae - Tuesday March 11, 2008

Flavio Briatore may just be the smartest man in a business crammed with seriously bright operators and so, on the brink of a new formula one season, it is always worth taking a step back to watch him at work. As the leader of Renault and the personal manager of a disconsolate Fernando Alonso, the deposed world champion, Briatore has brought a struggling team and his favourite driver back together again. And while Alonso re-adjusts to Renault, with whom he won two world championships before his brief and unhappy defection to McLaren, Briatore shrewdly focuses attention on the sport's current acrimony and subterfuge.

As he considers the animosity between Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, former team-mates at McLaren, the Italian grins slyly. "I think it was great for formula one. It was good news because without the fighting between Fernando and Hamilton it was very boring last year."

Formula one had been suffocated by tedium for years but last season tore up the humdrum pattern to such gripping effect that Briatore's throwaway line can be seen as an obvious prelude to some canny mischief-making. Three drivers were in with a chance of winning the world title with just a few laps left of the final grand prix - before Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen seized the championship from Hamilton and Alonso by a single point. That intense battle between warring drivers was matched by spying scandals involving McLaren, Ferrari and Renault.

The friction between Alonso and Hamilton, however, was particularly compelling. It now prompts Briatore to aim some sharp jibes at the British driver in an attempt to bolster Alonso. "Hamilton had a very good possibility to learn," Briatore says as he remembers how the brilliant young tyro finally lost his composure and claimed that Alonso only taught him how not to behave as a world champion. "When you are a rookie you need to take that opportunity. He had the chance to drive with somebody very special in Fernando."

Hamilton drove far better than Alonso on numerous occasions throughout the season and so it seems a curious charge. Does Briatore really believe the man who led the championship for almost the entire season squandered a chance to become a better driver? "Absolutely. Yes. Hamilton is very young and the talent is there but he lost this opportunity. As a rookie, in the first year, you should work for the team. Your team consists of 1,000 people working together to put two cars on the grid. You need to respect these people behind you - and not only your ego.

"This is something the driver needs to learn. It's not just about him. You hear drivers saying "my car". But it is not their car - it is the team car. A lot of people are watching you fight while they're working until five in the morning to deliver this car. I feel sorry for the employees of McLaren - it was terrible. It was important for McLaren to win the drivers' championship but they missed the opportunity. Because of this fight they finished with nothing."

Yet Alonso's own ego, while he was being outperformed by a rookie, was badly pricked. "When you want the world champion in your team, and you fight to take him away from Renault," Briatore argues, "you then need to protect him when he joins you. It was a new environment for him - and Fernando's only other experience has been with Renault. Sometimes we forget he is only 26."

Briatore shrugs when asked if McLaren blatantly favoured Hamilton. "Yeah. [Hamilton] was born in this team. He has been driving 10 years with McLaren so that is normal. But what is less normal is when you see Hamilton in pole position and everyone at McLaren is jumping like crazy. If pole was for Fernando then everyone was like this [Briatore feigns polite applause]. This is difficult for the driver because every time you give 100% effort for the team - and you can only presume that everybody has the same treatment. When you take the world champion, which Fernando was, and challenge him with a rookie it's not the best way.

"I never see Fernando have problems with any other driver. He's fun. Sure, maybe he was surprised by how quick Hamilton was - but don't forget that Hamilton arrived from GP2 and he had very good knowledge of the Bridgestone tyre. Fernando really don't have time with that tyre before he start testing with McLaren. Lewis was terrific but when Fernando changed his style of driving, in a completely different car, then he was very competitive. He was strong enough to fight."

Hamilton has since suffered racial abuse in Spain, Alonso's home country. "I don't think it was racist at all. It was four imbeciles in the middle of 30,000 people."

Briatore's love life and business ventures are completely free of any racist overtones - and it is surprising he should be so cavalier. Surely Hamilton was subjected to racism in pre-season testing? "Yeah," he concedes, "but these things happen in every place. You don't need to go to Spain to find people at this level. But the media immediately blame 29,995 other people. We are not even sure that these people are Spanish. Maybe they were from Mars. I believe what they did was wrong, 100%, but you don't need to criminalise 30,000 people."

He softens when admitting that, "Lewis is terrific for McLaren and for formula one but I would always choose Fernando. He is more experienced. But it's more important, and this is already happening, that Fernando has fun and enjoys his racing again."

Alonso's mood has not been helped by Renault's poor performance in testing, and he has already stated his dissatisfaction with the car. "Yes, it is too slow for him. But we are working hard and Fernando is not the type who pushes in the tests. He is more concerned in understanding the car and giving information to the engineer. Fernando tells you exactly the quality of your car. We are a little delayed but last year was difficult because in 2006, with Fernando, we were fighting for the title up to the last race with Ferrari. We won it but, in the process, we neglected the development of the new car. Now Fernando is talking about us having a 20-30% chance for the championship. I think it's about 20% - which means he is more optimistic than me. We can't recover everything in three months but we hope to be fighting and winning races by the middle of the season."

Last year Renault were also blighted by the spying saga. McLaren were fined £50m and lost all their points in the constructors' championship after one of their engineers obtained 780 pages of technical detail from Ferrari. But there was embarrassment at Renault when they were then found guilty of espionage against McLaren. Phil Mackereth, a former McLaren engineer, had shown technical data from his previous team to his new employers. "It was a completely different situation to McLaren and Ferrari," Briatore stresses when explaining how Renault avoided any penalty. "From the moment we saw this design we immediately called the federation and Ron Dennis [at McLaren]. If we'd had any useful information I'm sure we would have been more competitive last year."

The 57-year-old can escape such trials by lingering over his fiancee, Elisabetta Gregoraci, 28, the strutting Wonderbra woman, who represents his latest supermodel conquest after Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson, Eva Herzigova and Heidi Klum. In slightly less romantic fashion Briatore has also combined with two billionaires in Bernie Eccelestone and Lakshmi Mittal, the world's fifth-richest man, to buy Queens Park Rangers.

"I never expected this to happen. Each morning I only expect to wake up and shave. The rest I don't know because life is so fragile. Life, for me, is the moment. That's why I don't buy green bananas - who knows what will happen tomorrow? But now that I am with QPR it is amazing. We always have between 15,000 and 18,000 to see QPR - whether they play Colchester or Scunthope. Against Chelsea there were 41,000. That's why English football is fantastic. In Italy if Milan play Lecce you have 2,000 people."

Briatore smiles when asked how he and his billionaire chums and girlfriends have coped with the lack of glamour around the lower reaches of the Championship. "Our stadium is not the best so I'm not shocked. I go to Stoke and all over England and it is very civilised. Hospitality is very nice. We are the same with our fans - very clear and transparent. We aim to be in the Premier League in two more seasons but we will do it efficiently."

So there is little hope for gleeful QPR fans expecting a £40m injection in the summer? "No way. That number is completely wrong. Let's see at the end of the season but with this squad we have super players with a super attitude. You need a certain type of player to get out of the Championship and I think we have them. But, of course, Bernie, Lakshmi and me are as bad as each other when we lose. We want to win with QPR."

Briatore sounds typically determined but, for the moment, he is more consumed by this weekend's opening grand prix in Melbourne than the visit of Blackpool to Loftus Road. "The best two sports in the world are football and formula one and to be involved in both is very exciting. But you must understand one thing - my DNA is formula one. It is not football. Formula one comes first for me." Guardian

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