Speaking at the launch of Renault’s new car, the R29, in Portugal Flavio Briatore shrugged off retirement and vowed to help Fernando Alonso claim his third world championship.
Q: Flavio, not so long ago there were reports in some Italian publications that you intend to leave Formula One racing in a year or two. What are your plans?
Flavio Briatore: My plan is – well I don t know really – and I never said that to the Italian newspapers. We are living in a very crucial moment in Formula One. I believe with this crisis we have something that makes everybody tick, and what I want is to make sure we give Formula One the possibility to survive this crisis – and to change the business. I think that we have a responsibility to the people working for us to give them a future. We have never had a moment like this in history and I want to be part of this change in Formula One. This is what I want to do, whatever it takes. It is a unique opportunity. After that we will see.
Q: So we could see you around for quite some time?
FB: I hope. We as a team work very well together with (Formula One Teams Association) FOTA, we are working well with Max (Mosley) and we are working well with Bernie (Ecclestone). You remember that we have been talking about costs and now finally we are there, and finally we are trying to structure Formula One in a different way, and I want to be part of that. I hope it doesn t take 10 years, but I hope as well that we all live up to our responsibility and do the best possible.
Q: One of the big issues for this coming season is KERS. What do you think about bringing in KERS so quickly?
FB: I think it is a terrible mistake and in the end Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari supply engines to other teams and we are not making any money. It is just costing money. On one hand we are trying to reduce costs, and on the other hand we are opening a big door for something that, firstly we don t know and secondly we don t know what exactly it will cost us at the end of the development. We don t know if it is dangerous or not. It looks like it is not 100 percent under control and it doesn t seem to bring us anything good. What it brings is only costs, that is for sure. The situation as we have it now is that only one team is really determined to take this programme. We know already that in 2010 there is the option for a standardized KERS, so whatever money we spend this year is for one year only and in this kind of environment it is completely unnecessary. If you ask me what it does in terms of performance, I don t know. If you ask me if it is better with or without KERS – again a big question mark. What is for sure is that BMW wants to go to the end and it is difficult for us to have one competitor developing a programme that we are not part of. What we know is that we are spending money for nothing.
Q: So will Renault run KERS?
FB: For sure. We have the option to run KERS or not, but absolutely we will be there with KERS.
Q: Renault were very strong towards the end of last season. Have the new regulations interrupted the flow of the team?
FB: I don t think so. Last year we amended the car during the season but then towards the end we came back to our normal performance. We had a terrible year in 2007 after we changed the tyres. We went in the wrong direction and did not know why. It was just like building a castle from sand – it looks good but in the end, it collapses. Last year we came back with an understanding of what was going on and we improved dramatically during the season. We developed this new car with the same philosophy and the same principles and I am sure that we ve been doing a pretty good job.
Q: At the end of last season you had momentum. Are you worried about the other teams who stopped developing their 08 car earlier than you to concentrate on their 09 car?
FB: If you look at our history in 2005 and 2006 it was like that. We had to cope with the situation that Michelin decided to stop one year earlier at very short notice, but we were fighting with Ferrari for the championship and we had no time to think about tyres, and then it turned out to be a real disaster. It took about 18 months to come to terms with that. But then we were there. At the end of last season we were more competitive than BMW – fighting with Ferrari and McLaren. True, Ferrari and McLaren were fighting for the championship, but we were up to them in terms of performance.
Q: You definitely had a very successful last third of the season – in fact Renault scored more points than any other team over that period – but what makes you so sure that you won t start this season as you did last year?
FB: I don t know what will happen in two months, but we are working to achieve our target. I don t know the Ferrari or McLaren target. We have been improving the engine as well, as we were losing power last year. I think our package looks honest and correct and that we will be fighting at the top as we did at the end of last season. The fact is that nobody can be sure if they ll be competitive this season. I believe that we will see three, four, or five drivers eligible for the title.
Q: Did you change your engine over the winter to catch up?
FB: We have made some developments, but absolutely nothing dramatic. I think it will help close the gap to the top people. Probably Ferrari and McLaren will still be a bit better, but at least we were able to close the gap a bit. And we are definitely ready for the first race in Melbourne.
Q: You just said that three, four, or five drivers will be fighting for the championship. Will Fernando Alonso be one of them? He wasn t fighting for the championship last seasonâ€¦
FB: He was there at the end of last season so I don t see a reason why he should not be there. If the championship would have started in June instead of March – this was a mistake in the calendar. In June we were there, but unfortunately we started in March. But now everybody in the team knows – we start in March!
Q: In recent years there has been speculation that Renault is taking a close look at its investments in Formula One racing, making sure that they are getting good value for their money. Is there more pressure on the team now, given the economic situation?
FB: This is funny because everybody is talking about Renault and in the meantime Honda stopped. I have never had problems with the budget – I just don t want to spend money unnecessarily – it s simple like that. Whatever money I need for the budget, I never had a problem. I ve said that a thousand times – and (Renault CEO) Carlos Ghosn knows as well. Nobody ever asked Honda and in the meantime it s not here any more. I have always done what I believed was good for the performance of the car. In 2007 I spent nothing because I knew that the car was not good enough to achieve anything, so why spend the money? I don t want to spend money just because we are in Formula One, that is not my skill. I was always pushing for reducing costs and suddenly everybody has my idea. If we d started five years ago maybe Honda would still be in business. I always said that it makes no sense to have a thousand people working to have two cars on the grid, it makes no sense to develop something like KERS – for what?
Q: How do you think manufacturers can justify competing in Formula One racing if car sales drop further and the companies have to lay off staff?
FB: If you sell apples or you sell T-shirts, if the store is not working it s the same economic situation. This is the reason why for me Formula One has to be a centre of profit and not a centre of costs. Whatever company you have, if you make a profit you stay in the market, you re surviving, but it is very difficult to survive if your goal is to lose money.
Q: The profit depends on the revenue coming in tooâ€¦
FB: First, let s do something about the costs. Now it is the rules that determine the costs. If you have no rules, I promise you that whatever money you give to our engineers it will be burned. I know because after that the car goes one second quicker. But fortunately it s not only the money that makes the performance. We don t need extra money from the owner of the team or from the manufacturer. Basically we need to survive from what we have to sell. You don t need extra money every year. If you have a situation like that, the moment you face a crisis you are finished – like with Honda. Honda has put in a lot of money, but there was no future.
Q: What do you think about there being no races in North America this year?
FB: This is something that we want to have, but in the right way. We had the experience of Indianapolis and it wasn t great. In Indianapolis only racing people were there and there was no exposure at all. I know that Bernie is working very hard on the issue. But it is not easy negotiating for a race in America when the people think the most important thing is the show, and our show is not so fantastic at the moment. Bernie knows we want to have a race in North America and I know he is focused on that but it needs to happen at the right moment, in the right place.
Q: What do you think about the departure of Ron Dennis?
FB: I have great respect for what Ron Dennis has done in F1, honestly. Ninety per cent of the time we did not agree, as we obviously had a different view of F1, but I completely respect what Ron has done over the last 20 years for the sport. He was one of the great team owners. He built up an incredible company and I have a lot of respect for him, especially over the last six, seven months. McLaren gave up a lot in FOTA. I believe there are few teams who have done such an incredible job. Ron Dennis was a big supporter of FOTA and the policy of McLaren has changed completely lately, and for sure Martin Whitmarsh will follow Ron s direction. Ron was a great player in FOTA and my respect for him over the last few months grew. Ferrari also gave up a lot and Renault also gave up a lot – and some gave up nothing. As usual. Someone took a step back to help the interests of F1, and that was Ron Dennis. Some other teams are pushing hard to make sure everybody spends a fortune to have KERS in Australia.