He might be the man who effectively gave Michael Schumacher the tools with which to construct his extraordinary F1 career, but Flavio Briatore has branded the record-breaking German legend's decision to leave Ferrari to pursue a competitive return with Mercedes Grand Prix in 2010 a self-serving, 'inelegant betrayal' – and predicted that if his comeback is not a success, 'it will be a disaster'.
Schumacher was handed his bow in the top flight by Eddie Jordan with the colourful Irishman's eponymous Jordan Grand Prix outfit in the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps – and he made such an instant impression on the whole paddock that Briatore wasted little time in swooping in to poach him away to Benetton, where the Kerpen native would remain until the end of 1995, claiming the first two of his seven drivers' world championship crowns in his final two seasons there before switching camps to Ferrari.
The 91-time grand prix-winner stayed at the fabled Scuderia
until hanging up his F1 helmet at the end of 2006 – his 15th full campaign at the highest level – and most assumed he would never leave, but now he has, earning himself the condemnation and disgust of the ever-loyal tifosi
and partisan Italian media, who perceived his departure as a 'betrayal'.
Briatore – who was banned from the sport for a 'betrayal' of his own in the wake of the infamous and explosive 'Singapore-gate' race-fixing scandal last year, only to subsequently get his punishment successfully overturned in the French High Court – tends to agree, and cast doubt upon whether his former protégé would be able to simply pick up again at the same ultra-competitive level at which he left off more than three years ago.
“Schumacher wanted to return with Ferrari but did not have the chance,” the Italian told Rai Radio 1
. “It then came to this inelegant betrayal. He is like any other – he talks, but when it comes to actions it is according to his personal interest.
“Michael will have to work hard. His comeback has given Formula 1 a new motivation, [but] if he is not competitive it will be a disaster. It's not his 41 years, but the three years he was away from Formula 1. You don't race faster if you colour your hair.”
Briatore went on to forecast a Mercedes-Red Bull-Ferrari-McLaren quartet at the forefront of the pecking order in 2010, but dismissed the average grand prix as 'boring' – whilst Schumacher insisted that the 59-year-old's remarks had caused no hard feelings, even if he acknowledged that his erstwhile team boss had 'certainly exceeded the borders' two years ago in Singapore.
“I personally have no problems at all with Flavio,” he told Bild
newspaper. “I know him very well; I know his strengths and his weaknesses. I think we all make mistakes. If he learns from it (Singapore-gate), I would have no problem if he came back. Flavio is simply a unique personality.”