When Christian Horner joined a meeting of Formula One team leaders in 2005, he was in his early 30s and was unexpectedly chosen to lead the new Red Bull team. He found himself among well-known figures such as Sir Frank Williams, Ron Dennis from McLaren, and Jean Todt from Ferrari, who had dedicated their lives to competing and succeeding in the complex, cutthroat, and politically charged world of Formula One.
Without the support of a patron with greater power than his opponents, Horner could have met the same fate as many others before him – being devoured.
Bernie Ecclestone, the leader of F1, had recognized Horner’s potential in the past ten years. Like Ecclestone’s decision in the 1950s, Horner also acknowledged his limitations as a race car driver and transitioned to becoming a team manager and organizer.
On Thursday, the Red Bull headquarters will host a media launch for Max Verstappen’s car, which he hopes will lead him to a fourth consecutive drivers’ championship. This will be the first time since the team’s inception that Horner may not be overseeing the event.
The future of his role as team leader seems to rely on the result of his meeting on Friday with a neutral attorney who will investigate claims of misconduct and excessive control made by a female staff member. Horner has denied these allegations.
The person has engaged in altercations previously, but this particular one is unlike any other. It occurred 18 months after the passing of the team’s owner, Dietrich Mateschitz, who was a billionaire in the energy-drinks industry from Austria. There were rumors of disagreements among the top members of the team, despite their remarkable success last season with 21 victories out of 22 races.
Horner achieved early success as the owner of Arden Racing, which led him to the F3000 series, a step below F1 at the time owned by Ecclestone. As Horner’s drivers consistently won the championship for three years and he became the team’s representative, Ecclestone had the opportunity to get to know him and possibly saw similarities between them.
Horner shared with me that he used to constantly annoy him, when his team achieved their fourth consecutive F1 championship with Sebastian Vettel. He mentioned that when he decided to enter into F1, he received a lot of encouragement from him. Initially, he suggested Jordan as an option, but it became clear that it wasn’t a feasible opportunity. Eventually, Red Bull took over Jaguar.
Mateschitz recognized the value of sports that involved speed and danger, whether it was air racing or skiing in the mountains. He saw it as a great way to promote his company. When the opportunity arose for his company to become involved in Formula 1, Ecclestone suggested the struggling Jaguar team. The team’s owner, Ford, was happy to get rid of it for a symbolic $1, along with the costs that came with potential job cuts and shutting down the team.
When Ecclestone brought up the possibility of a young man taking over the team, Mateschitz was willing to take a chance. For Horner, this would entail a sudden shift from managing a team of 20 to leading an organization with nearly 500 employees (now around 1,700), including the challenge of boosting morale.
Horner already knew Dr Helmut Marko, Mateschitz’s compatriot and motor sport adviser, with whom the current rift – perhaps also involving Jos Verstappen, the current champion’s father – is said to have opened in recent months.
Marko is a former race car driver who had the potential to become a championship contender, but unfortunately lost an eye due to a flying stone incident at a grand prix in 1972. He and Horner were rivals as team owners in F3000 before Marko teamed up with Mateschitz to establish Red Bull’s young driver program. Marko is known for his merciless approach in removing those who do not meet the team’s standards.
Horner expressed that he has always had a positive connection with Helmut. He remembers when he first started his team, Arden, and purchased a used trailer from Helmut in Graz. At the time, Horner was not aware of Helmut’s accomplishments and reputation. Despite this, he trusted Helmut and made a deal with him based solely on a handshake. It wasn’t until Horner visited Helmut’s workshop and saw newspaper clippings featuring Austrian racing legends such as Niki Lauda, Jochen Rindt, and Helmut Marko that he realized who Helmut truly was.
After installation, Horner focused on persuading renowned designer Adrian Newey to leave McLaren. Both were from Warwickshire and had gone to the same prep school, though they were 10 years apart. During the Monaco GP weekend, Newey accepted Horner’s invitation to attend a gala premiere of Red Bull’s promoted film, Superman Returns. During dinner, they started discussing the potential of Newey joining as a designer for championship-winning cars, having previously worked with Williams and McLaren. Five years later, Vettel claimed Red Bull’s first of seven drivers’ and six constructors’ titles.
Previously, the choice regarding Horner’s future would have been determined by Mateschitz, potentially under the influence of the now-replaced Ecclestone. However, in present times, the situation is not as definite. It is important to note that both Horner and Newey have “key man” provisions in their agreements, which would become invalid if the other were to leave.
Newey is the most accomplished designer in the world of Formula One, while Horner has demonstrated a strong ability in promoting the sport. He is often seen attending social gatherings with his wife, former Spice Girl Geri, and is always willing to share his well-crafted thoughts with reporters and listeners alike. Together with Mercedes’ Toto Wolff, they have made headlines with their intense and occasionally bitter rivalry, reminiscent of the dynamic between Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger.
Like many others in the F1 community, Horner has not been immune to creating rivalries. As the start of the season approaches in Bahrain, there is heightened curiosity surrounding the lawyer’s decision and how it may impact the immediate future of F1.