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Analysis
Formula 1 Spanish GP

Ben Hunt: Just what is Renault thinking by re-signing disgraced ex-F1 team boss Briatore?

OPINION: Alpine Formula 1 team has announced Flavio Briatore's appointment as Executive Advisor to Renault Group CEO Luca de Meo - a bizarre and no less terrifying appointment

Flavio Briatore

Flavio Briatore

Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images

One wonders what is going on in the offices of the Renault Group in Boulogne-Billancourt on the outskirts of Paris for it to make such a decision about its Formula 1 operation.

Just how bad has it got that Renault finds itself in this position to reappoint a disgraced former team boss - one that plunged the famous French brand into its darkest moments in motorsport?

And he is not returning in some sort of marketing or brand capacity for the titles he won with the team in 2005 and 2006, but as an advisor to the company's CEO. How short was the wish list of potential candidates to lead Alpine out of the mire?

Yes, these appear hard times for Renault's involvement in Formula 1, as it stands at a crossroads weighing up whether or not to pull the plug on its engine operation. But really, has it got that bad they have to turn to the man that nearly destroyed it?

For all the characters in F1 during the 1990s and 2000s, Briatore was perhaps the most synonymous with the sport's perceived playboy lifestyle.

He was a ski instructor-turned-restauranteur-turned-insurance broker-turned-owner of a paint firm-turned stockbroker before meeting Luciano Benetton, who founded the Benetton clothing company.

Michael Schumacher, Benetton and Benetton team manager Flavio Briatore

Michael Schumacher, Benetton and Benetton team manager Flavio Briatore

Photo by: Sutton Images

Briatore has been the subject of intense scrutiny from the authorities, who have delved into finances and tax returns - yet he’s always emerged on the other side unscathed. Reputation  tarnished, yet still in service.

Seemingly, nothing sticks when it comes to Briatore. Like the way he has been welcomed back into the F1 paddock after masterminding one of the world championship's most controversial moments.

At the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Briatore and his chief engineer Pat Symonds were implicated in an order passed to Fernando Alonso's team-mate, Nelson Piquet Jr, who deliberately crashed to cause a safety car that would in turn help Alonso to win the race, which he duly did.

'Crashgate' is now the subject of legal action by Felipe Massa, who is seeking remuneration for his claim that he missed out on the 2008 world championship as a consequence of Alonso's win. 

The allegations of race-fixing surfaced in 2009 after Piquet left Renault and turned whistle-blower. Despite protesting in his innocence, Briatore was banned for life from all FIA-sanctioned events while Renault was shown leniency by the FIA, much to the frustration of some teams, and handed a two-year probation sentence.

The Italian, who let's remember had said he'd done nothing wrong, decided to quit Renault along with Symonds.

However, in 2010 with escapology skills Harry Houdini would have been proud of, he overturned the lifetime ban, following his appeal to the French Tribunal de Grande Instance - much to the dismay of the FIA.

Flavio Briatore (ITA) Renault F1 Managing Director

Flavio Briatore (ITA) Renault F1 Managing Director

Photo by: Sutton Images

Some could argue the governing body could have acted sooner in other situations where it had probed his team, namely surrounding Ayrton Senna's fears that several teams were using traction control.

Or how Michael Schumacher's car exceeded wear tolerances of the plank on the underside of his Benetton at the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix, which saw him disqualified. Or indeed allegations of using outlawed launch control also during the 1994 season.

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In recent years, Briatore's return to F1 races has irked, but it had not seemed especially relevant to trigger much of a reaction. It smacked of someone who still hankered after the limelight, plus he was also acting as part of Alonso's management team.

He had some involvement in establishing the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and has some business interests in the oil-rich Azeri capital. He has also been involved in some commercial introductions with F1 as part of his friendship with F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali.

But it is this new position which is certain to spark a backlash.

He was found guilty by the FIA of one of sport's most heinous of crimes - to ask his driver to crash on purpose - threatening the integrity of F1 and for that, whatever he may protest, it is staggering that he should have even been considered by Renault.

Or the fact that some team principals at the Spanish Grand Prix sought to turn a blind eye to his past when six months ago - and rightly so - they were calling for greater transparency and integrity within F1.

Stefano Domenicali, CEO, Formula 1, Flavio Briatore on the grid

Stefano Domenicali, CEO, Formula 1, Flavio Briatore on the grid

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

For the time being, there is expected to be some distance from Alpine. He is currently reporting directly to de Meo and subsequently will not be in team kit in Barcelona. But for how long?

There is a suspicion that he could be earmarked as a potential replacement for Bruno Famin, the interim boss made permanent Alpine team principal who has seen the team slump towards the back of the grid under his watch. It would be a preposterous decision but then, this is where we seem to be at.

A seemingly more likely explanation, and the only one which makes any sense in this baffling appointment, is that he's performing an analysis for de Meo, as he weighs up Renault's future in F1.

Despite being told the team is not being put up for sale, questions over Renault ending its involvement in F1 will not go away.

And if that is the case, then if it is looking for someone to oversee an exit after a disastrous return to F1 and confusing branding excise with Alpine, then perhaps the tenacious Briatore would make the perfect fall guy.

Flavio Briatore

Flavio Briatore

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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