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‘I would rather not have these stories’: Max Verstappen on Christian Horner, his dad and staying at Red Bull
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‘I would rather not have these stories’: Max Verstappen on Christian Horner, his dad and staying at Red Bull

Max Verstappen takes a breath, gathering his thoughts, the usually ebullient and unpredictable driver for once appearing stilted. It is almost as if he is assessing the parameters of what he can and cannot say, knowing his words carry more scrutiny than ever this season.

“The more I talk about it, the more people have to write,” he says, almost apologetically. “You write it down, you make a story out of it and people will pick up little things and it becomes a massive shit storm. You know what I mean? I tell you a story that might get translated to Spanish, Dutch, whatever. The more I say about it is not going to help the situation.”

The Formula One world champion is referring, of course, to the turmoil that has engulfed him, his Red Bull team and its principal, Christian Horner, this season. Intriguingly even this tiny admission of frustration feels as if Verstappen has gone off piste from the line he and the team have followed since the tumult surrounding Horner began.

For months it has dominated the sport, eclipsing Verstappen’s formidable command on track. It emerged in February that Horner was accused of inappropriate behaviour by a female employee, an allegation he has always denied. A grievance procedure was dismissed by an independent inquiry. She has also submitted a complaint to the F1’s governing body, the FIA.

Sitting in the team’s motorhome, Verstappen is outwardly as affable and relaxed as ever. The 26-year-old views the associated hoopla around F1 – the TV, the media, meeting the sponsors – as a necessary evil in allowing him to do what he loves, which is going racing. He is rarely churlish in carrying out these duties, even this year with the inevitable focus on the goings-on at the team, but he concedes the furore around Horner has not been to his liking.

“I would rather not have these stories, these things going on within the team,” he says. “We just have to deal with it and move on from it. I am contracted to the team to do my job, that’s performance, that’s what I am focused on. I am not a politician, I am not someone who likes to be political. I just focus on the performance with the people around me, try to distract myself from, let’s say, the negative.”

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner speaks with Max Verstappen in the team garage during practice in Bahrain in March 2024View image in fullscreen

The saga has undoubtedly rocked the team with whom Verstappen has won the past three world titles. Horner wants to move on but the cracks are hard to paper over. He was publicly criticised by Verstappen’s father, Jos, who claimed the issue was tearing the team apart. Then a series of unsubstantiated messages purporting to be between the employee and Horner were leaked, an escalation that was rumoured to have come from Jos, an allegation he has denied.

There was a further spat over Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s motor sport adviser and a man fundamental in bringing Verstappen to the team, whose future was placed in doubt. It could have prompted Verstappen to leave. Horner responded with a blunt declaration that no single person was bigger than the team.

Another blow landed recently when Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s genius car designer, who has helped deliver seven drivers’ titles since he joined in 2006, announced he was to leave next year, amid reports he was uncomfortable with the allegations around Horner. To call it turmoil almost does the word a disservice.

Amid all of this was Verstappen, one of the most talented drivers of his generation in a car that is the class of the field. Except no one has been talking about him, or his car.

The Dutchman’s words are guarded and careful. He refers relentlessly to “performance”. Verstappen has stressed this on every occasion since the saga began. His conversation is peppered with the word, until it feels almost like a litany or a defence mechanism. “It is very important that we are focusing on performance,” he repeats at various points when we speak.

Verstappen notably failed to give Horner his unequivocal backing as the events were unfolding at the start of the season. His father’s open criticisms of the team principal ratcheted up the tension to another level and are believed to be part of a power struggle taking place between Red Bull’s parent company in Austria, Red Bull GmbH, and Horner.

Yet Verstappen has been clear that his father would always be absolutely vital in his career, more so than Horner. Earlier this season he talked about the “pillars” of stability he required to remain with the team and that clearly his father was one, which given the relationship between Horner and Jos felt incongruous.

“My dad will always stay with me of course,” he says when asked about these pillars, but what about his father’s clear issues with Horner? “They are not in conflict,” is Verstappen’s response. “People can have different opinions but that’s a different story.”

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So where does Horner stand among these pillars for Verstappen? It transpires he is there but, interestingly, only in reference to the Dutchman’s arrival at Red Bull in 2016, when he was promoted from their sister team, Toro Rosso. The past tense was perhaps telling, before the world champion reverts to the script.

“There are a lot of pillars involved. When I jumped to Red Bull Racing Christian is a pillar within that whole story,” he says. “But it’s always really about everyone being back on track focused on performance. We have said it many times now, we are very focused on the performance side of things at the moment and hopefully we can keep that going.”

Max Verstappen with his father, Jos, in 2014View image in fullscreen

At Monaco focus and performance will doubtless be at the very front of his mind on the testing street circuit. With five wins from seven races this season – but beaten by McLaren’s Lando Norris in Miami and pushed hard by the British driver at the last round in Imola – he will once more want to assert his authority on the title fight in Monte Carlo this weekend.

It is a circuit that matters to Verstappen. In 2018 he crashed in final practice pushing too hard, costing him a place in qualifying and almost certainly the team’s best shot at a win that season. It led to blunt criticism from Horner and was seen as a turning point for the young driver, who adapted his style afterwards and has since taken two wins here. Yet looking back now, there were no regrets and absolutely no self-admonishment when asked if he would consider any advice for young Max.

“Nothing, I wouldn’t tell him to change,” he says with a return to his more usual confident decisiveness. “It’s good to make mistakes, it’s good to learn to challenge yourself, to have tough moments and overcome them. If everything comes easy to you it’s quite boring to know what is going to happen tomorrow or the day after. It’s exciting to not know, to feel it, to learn it yourself and it will be until the final day of your career.”

It seems this is part of what actually motivates Verstappen. He still views racing as a labour of love, good times and bad, subject matter where he is comfortable and displays the more usual, animated enthusiasm. “I have never seen F1 as a job,” he says. “It all started as a hobby, a passion which became a profession. It’s not really a job, of course the driving is what I really love. Going on the limit in a fast car is really, really nice. It’s more the things around it that make it feel like a job, the things that are not that enjoyable.”

He leaves the details of those things unsaid but dealing with events this year certainly would not have featured as part of the passion that ignited Verstappen’s love for the sport. Inevitably the furore has also led to a feeding frenzy of rumour around his future at Red Bull. Mercedes are actively courting him, as are other teams, although he is contracted until the end of 2028. Right now he insists he would like to see out his time with Red Bull, with whom he feels a clear affinity. Whether that still extends to its principal remains to be seen.

“I am quite a loyal person and it is something that means a lot to me,” he says. “That is what I request from the team and so far that has always been great and that is what I want to keep for a long time. It would be amazing to finish my career here at Red Bull. All the years staying basically at one team would be incredible.”

Source: theguardian.com