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Will Flavio Briatore Replace Stefano Domenicali at Ferrari?

Flavio Briatore taking a meeting with wife Elisabetta Gregoraci

They say you can’t keep a good man down, but clearly this maxim could be expanded to include disgraced F1 team bosses, as well.  Flavio Briatore, who resigned from Renault last year in the wake of the Crashgate scandal has been seen frequenting the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello recently, and naturally certain observers have therefone concluded that he’s about to take over Stefano Domenicali’s job as team principal.

Never mind that Briatore will be unable to take a direct hand in team management for another two years, per the provisions of an FIA ban that will remain in effect until 2013.  The rumor mongers insist that Briatore is lobbying behind the scenes to have this timeline abbreviated.

Stranger things have happened.  Remember that Flavio’s initial ban was for five years, but he contested the matter in court, and had it reduced.  It’s also true that the current president of the FIA is former Ferrari boss Jean Todt.  If Flavio were angling for a Ferrari position, would it be too far-fetched to think that Todt might be accommodating in this context?  Conspiracy theorists are already sharpening their quills.

The question that occurs to me isn’t whether or not Flavio is in line to replace Domenicali.  Far more relevant would be the question of why Ferrari would want him on board in the first place.  While he’s certainly a colorful character, Flavio seems to be the proverbial fox in the chicken coop.

True, he did helm the Benetton/Renault squad to a total of four world titles, two with Michael Schumacher (under the Benetton brand) and two with Fernando Alonso (after the Renault acquisition).  But he was also in charge during the team’s protracted fallow periods.  So his record there is definitely mixed.  And this year, Renault seems revitalized in the aftermath of Flavio’s departure. Perhaps Renault’s housecleaning was a blessing in disguise.

And while it’s true that Ferrari seems to have suffered since the departure of Ross Brawn  at the end of 2006, I think you would have to be delusional to think that Flavio Briatore would be the tonic that would cure the team’s ills.  When Brawn first went to Ferrari, he said his initial contribution to the team was to apply a British methodology to an Italian spirit (although one also suspects that Schumacher’s Teutonic approach to preparation was also an essential ingredient to their successful recipe during those years).  Brawn’s framework apparently has been left in place, but Flavio is the anti-Brawn.  God only knows what the result wold be.

There’s also the question of internal politics.  Flavio currently runs a company that manages several F1 drivers, including Mark Webber and…one Fernando Alonso.  If Felipe Massa doesn’t feel paranoid now, that would certainly change once he saw Briatore perched on the pit wall wearing a set of red coveralls.

If you’re an American, of course, you’re apt to say, “Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest?”  But transparency has never been a by-law of Formula 1 operations, and Flavio has more often than not owned commercial interests in the drivers on the various teams he’s been linked with (besides Benetton/Renault, this list also includes the defunct Ligier and Menardi teams).  The glaring exception to this trend was Michael Schumacher, who has always used Willi Weber as a manager.  Weber now handles the career of Williams rookie Nico Hulkenberg.

Personally, I don’t see Briatore stepping in to fill Domenicali’s shoes.  I can’t really see what he’d bring to the team.  He wasn’t really a strategist at Renault.  That role was filled by Pat Symonds and the team’s engineers.

Flavio’s real genius is commercial. Aside from various business interests connected to Formula 1, he also owns the Billionaire line of apparel; the Billionaire night club in Sardinia; Cipriani’s restaurant in Mayfair, London; and until recently, nearly a majority stake in the Pierrel pharmaceuticals concern.  He also owns resorts in Tuscany and Kenya.  And, most intriguingly, he and Bernie Ecclestone are co-owners of the Queens Park Rangers Football Club.

Some have speculated that Flavio will be recruited by Bernie to work behind the scenes on various commercial aspects of Formula 1.  Apparently, these activities could be distanced enough from the sporting side of F1 to make them allowable under Flavio’s FIA ban. According to this line of thinking, Flavio’s visits to Maranello were made in this context.

On the other hand, it could be much simpler than that.  Since Briatore is, in effect, Fernando Alonso’s manager, he might simply be doing business on behalf of his client.  One can almost hear him saying, “Stefano, what’s all this nonsense I hear about equal treatment of the drivers?  No number one?  That’s absurd!  Clearly, Fernando is….”  You can imagine the rest of the conversation.

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