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More Horner woe and driver gossip: what to look out for as F1 hits Japan | Giles Richards
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More Horner woe and driver gossip: what to look out for as F1 hits Japan | Giles Richards

Red Bull and Horner lead the agenda

The issue that has dominated F1 all season shows no sign of going away, much as the beleaguered Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, would like to draw a line under it. On Tuesday the female employee who brought allegations of inappropriate behaviour against Horner was described by a family friend as angry and intimidated but determined that the truth would come out, once more putting Horner and Red Bull under focus.

Since she had her grievance dismissed, she has been suspended from her job, launched an appeal against the grievance decision made by an internal investigation and reportedly submitted a complaint to the FIA regarding a breach of the sport’s code of conduct, which the governing body is obliged to investigate. She is understood to have made clear her intent to take the matter to an employment tribunal should her appeal fail, which could potentially bring details of the case into the public domain.

Horner will face a barrage of questions on the subject in Japan, as will the FIA and F1. The knock-on effects are still pinballing across the paddock, not least in having brought into question the future of the world champion, Max Verstappen.

Verstappen’s future in the spotlight

Verstappen retired in Australia with brake failure but remains the clear favourite for the title this season, just as he remains the favourite target for teams circling the chaos at Red Bull. He is contracted to 2028 and has said he has no intention of leaving. Yet his father, Jos, has called for Horner to go and Verstappen has stated he would leave if Red Bull’s director of motorsport, Helmut Marko, was removed. The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, has used this turbulence to make his aim clear, last week stating Verstappen would be the No 1 target to replace the departing Lewis Hamilton.

Wolff first tried to sign Verstappen as a teenager but lost out to Red Bull when he was unable to offer him an F1 seat. Pulling it off this time would be a coup greater than when Mercedes captured Hamilton from McLaren. The ambitious Aston Martin, who have deep pockets, have also been linked with a move for Verstappen, while questions over the efficacy of the new Red Bull engine for 2026 have made plausible the highly unlikely scenario of Verstappen opting to leave the sport’s dominant team, at least when the regulations change that year.

He is then the key player in a hotly contested driver market which also includes Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz, both out of contract at the end of this season, with Sebastian Vettel also hinting on Tuesday that he may seek a return to an F1 cockpit after revealing talks with Wolff.

Adrian Newey on wish lists

As the most successful designer of the modern era, Red Bull’s chief technical officer, Adrian Newey, has always been high on every team’s wish list and the furore at Red Bull has intensified efforts to lure him away. Most recently, in the past month, Ferrari were reported to be in advanced talks with the 65-year-old, a potential move lent credence by the fact that Newey has said that he had always wanted to design a car for the Scuderia and, indeed, that he had not worked with Hamilton, who will join them next season.

Adrian Newey (left) with Marek Reichman View image in fullscreen

Aston Martin are since believed to have upped the ante by making a lucrative contract offer to Newey. Red Bull believe he is going nowhere, having signed a multiyear contract with him last year and given him the opportunity to design their new high-performance road hypercar. Yet this remains the most public and aggressive feting of Newey in years and if he did move it would have an enormous impact, not least in that it would be extremely likely Verstappen would attempt to up sticks and follow him.

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FIA faces fallout

The FIA is under the spotlight after an investigation into its president, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, exonerated the Emirati after he had allegedly interfered in two grands prix. The FIA revealed few details about its internal investigation.

F1’s governing body has been similarly reticent to comment on Horner and Red Bull, apart from Ben Sulayem himself, who inexplicably appeared to choose sides in asking Verstappen to publicly support Horner without knowing any details of the inquiry.

All of which was compounded when Wolff’s wife, Susie, announced she had filed a criminal complaint against the organisation for bringing a conflict of interest investigation against her and her husband which was found to be unsubstantiated.

There has been no comment on these issues from the body since, with the notable exception of a letter from Ben Sulayem to FIA members stating there were efforts to destabilise him and reiterating that he was committed to “an environment of transparency, accountability and unwavering integrity”.

Ferrari and Mercedes have point to prove

Sainz won for Ferrari in Australia and, even given Verstappen’s brake issue, they clearly have the next best car to Red Bull. It has retained its grip in the slower corners but improved the balance through the fast ones and in turn made its tyre usage more consistent, all of which has made it easier to drive. Sainz and his teammate Charles Leclerc are clearly more comfortable and there is confidence they can develop the car strongly. If they are as close to Red Bull through the high-speed corners of Suzuka, then there might yet be a fight to come this season.

For Mercedes, in contrast, Suzuka is all about a fightback after three lacklustre races. The technical director, James Allison, believes they have identified the weakness as being attributable to warmer conditions and hopes to address it. The question is can they manage it through setup adjustment? If not, it will point to inherent issues with the aero or suspension design, suggesting only long-term and complex solutions. Suzuka holds the key for both teams.

Source: theguardian.com