Top Stories from the Features pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, August 21, 1995
Grand Prix Racing as a Study in Style
By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
MAGNY-COURS, France - The boss, a tall, tanned man with a shock of silver hair, paces thoughtfully in the garage. His 20 mechanics work in a choreographed way on two sleek cars to the sound of a Jim Morrison ballad. Out back, a fashion model poses for a magazine photographer.
It was just another day at the races for Flavio Briatore and his Benetton Formula One team.
His competitors used to call it ''the T-shirt team.'' One said Briatore didn't
know the difference between a racing team and a tomato cannery. Another complained about the rock music. Most predicted the clown would last a few races and disappear.
Then last year Briatore's driver, Michael Schumacher, won the World Drivers' Championship, and the team came within a hair's breadth of winning the constructors' title. Schumacher is the leading driver again this year, and the team is on top too.
''Nobody complains anymore about the music,'' said Briatore, 45, as he fiddled with his cigarette package inside the motor home that serves as his office during a Grand Prix. ''Now they just call us the colorful team.''
Colorful is the word. Briatore has built his success on a rigorous new approach to Formula One that may be summed up in one word: Style.
If Formula One is a circus, as its adherents often call it, then Briatore is its creative director.
''Formula One is sport because you have the power fight, and the fight between human beings,'' he said in an interview at the French Grand Prix. ''But you're also talking about show business, you're talking about technology, you're talking about girls.''
He boasts that the women in his marketing department are the most beautiful of all the teams. (Of his 200 employees, 20 are in marketing.)
Briatore, whose official title is Benetton's managing director, is trying to bring back a glamorous style that he says was lost from Formula One through the years. He invites fashion models to the races, and they often get as much attention as the drivers.
But his style is not just for the sake of image. He explained that creating a good atmosphere helps the team work better in a high pressure environment.
''My mechanics are young guys traveling all the time,'' he said, ''and the music in the garage relaxes them.''
Benetton is also said to have the best pasta in the paddock, where pasta is the food sports doctors recommend to drivers. Briatore hired his chef, Luigi Montanini, away from Ferrari three years ago. On the other hand, Schumacher has just been lured away to drive for Ferrari beginning next year.
The Benetton clothing company's fashion department provides hand-stitched team uniforms. At the car factory headquarters in Enstone, England, male managers are required to wear a tie, and technicians wear white work suits.
''I have a lot of visitors,'' said Briatore, ''and at dinner when you have guests, you don't usually stay with T-shirts and jeans.''
The key to it all, of course, is that sponsors like his style; Benetton has one of the four largest budgets of all teams, with sponsors like Japan Tobacco Inc., Renault and Elf.
How did a fashion man end up in the Formula One circus?
''I have a friend who started out in show business and ended up running a funeral parlor,'' said Briatore, explaining that you go where the river flows.
Born in Cuneo, near Turin, to schoolteacher parents, he left school at 18 to work as a ski instructor, then as a door-to-door life insurance salesman, and while working as a stockbroker in 1974 in Milan he befriended Luciano Benetton, of the clothing family.
After going to the United States to start a real estate business, he was asked by Luciano Benetton to join the company. So he found himself in the clothing business, setting up Benetton's network of U.S. outlets.
In 1988 Luciano Benetton invited Briatore to his first Grand Prix race, in Australia, at a time when Benetton was considering pulling out of the sport after several mediocre years as a sponsor. But Briatore had a vision of Formula One as a marketing tool, and in 1989 he joined the team and started making long term plans.
''Formula One is the only sport that is worldwide, covered by television, and runs every two weeks,'' he said of the marketing potential. ''You have 150 million people watching. The message is very quick, very clear.''
And how does he explain the appeal of cars going around and around?
''The car is so important in everyday life, so the driver represents the hero. To have the ability to drive like Schumacher, like Alesi, like Berger, it's fantastic.''
Briatore himself has driven a Formula One car only once, an experience he shared one day with King Hussein of Jordan, and Constantine, the former king of Greece.
His approach is changing the look of Formula One itself.
A couple of questionable penalties last year prevented his team winning the title. But his car's style was imitated by the winning team, when they rebuilt their car with the aerodynamic look of the Benetton, with its raised shark nose.
Briatore's eccentric racing suggestions, like the one about putting the fastest cars at the back of the starting grid behind the slower ones, may be listened to more closely now.
''You need to be creative in this business,'' he said. ''Formula One is the pinnacle of technology, why not be the pinnacle of show business too?''
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