Briatore was born in Verzuolo near Cuneo, Italy, among the Maritime Alps, from a family of elementary school teachers. He got the diploma of Land Surveying at Fassino di Busca's high school with the lowest marks. Briatore found early work as a ski instructor and restaurant manager. He first opened a restaurant named Tribüla, which was Briatore's nickname and indicates someone who is prepared to undergo any trouble in order to get what he wants, the restaurant was eventually closed.
In the 1970s he lived in Cuneo and became assistant of the business man Attilio Dutto, owner of the Paramatti vernici (formerly owned by Michele Sindona), who was killed on March 21, 1979 in a car bomb attack by the Red Brigades.
After this event he moved to Milan and got involved with the Italian stock exchange; during this period he met Luciano Benetton, founder of the Benetton clothing company. The two became friends and eventually business partners; when Benetton opened his first five stores in the United States in 1979, he appointed Briatore director of the group's American operations.
Due to Benetton's unorthodox method of franchising, the chain experienced a brief boom in American popularity. By 1989 there were eight hundred stores in the United States. Briatore, having taken a cut of each franchising agreement, became a very wealthy man. As store owners began to complain of competition from other Benetton stores, the number of stores decreased to two hundred and Briatore began to look for a new business.
Briatore attended his first Formula One race, the Australian Grand Prix, in 1988, despite having proclaimed his lack of interest in the sport. Benetton made him commercial director of the new F1 constructor, Benetton Formula, and when he fired the team management shortly thereafter, Briatore became managing director and set about turning Benetton into a competitive constructor. He hired and quickly fired engineer John Barnard. Barnard's successor was Tom Walkinshaw, whose greatest achievement was to lure young driver Michael Schumacher from the Jordan team after his first F1 race in 1991. Schumacher went on to win a race in both 1992 and 1993 before claiming the World Championship in 1994.
Late in 1994 Briatore purchased the ailing Ligier constructor to acquire its stock of Renault engines. FIA regulations, however, did not permit him to own the team, so he sold it to Walkinshaw. He took on complete management of Benetton, but when Schumacher and a number of engineers departed for Ferrari in 1996, the team slipped to the middle of the grid.
Briatore purchased a share of the Minardi team in 1996, but unable to sell it to British American Tobacco, he sold out to fellow owners Giancarlo Minardi and Gabriele Rumi. Benetton fired him in 1997 in favor of David Richards.
From 1998 to 2000 he sold Renault engines, calling them Supertec.
In 2000 Renault returned to Formula One with the purchase of the Benetton Formula team. Briatore returned as managing director and team principal, replacing Rocco Benetton. The team raced as Benetton-Renault in 2001 before becoming Renault F1 in 2002.
Briatore's reputation as a talent spotter has again been highlighted by the career of Fernando Alonso. Briatore contracted the then 19 year old Spaniard in 1999. As his manager Briatore secured a race drive for him with Minardi in 2001, promoting him to test driver of Renault in 2002 before replacing Jenson Button with him as race driver in 2003. When he replaced Button the outcry was huge but Briatore stated "Time will tell if I am wrong."
Briatore also acts as agent for Mark Webber.
In the late 1990s Briatore gained notoriety among European tabloids for his romantic relationships with supermodels such as Naomi Campbell, Adriana Volpe, and Heidi Klum. Klum gave birth to Briatore's only child, a daughter named Leni, in 2004.