Red Bull team principal Christian HornerPhoto: Dan Istitene/Formula 1/Getty Images
When Christian Horner first took his seat at a Formula One team principals meeting in 2005, barely into his 30s and an unexpected appointment to lead the new Red Bull team, he was entering a world where much to say. Sir Frank Williams, Ron Dennis of McLaren and Jean Todt of Ferrari spent their lives fighting and winning in a very complex, competitive and highly political environment.
Horner might easily have been eaten alive, as many before him, had he not benefited from the support of a patron whose power surpassed that of all his rivals.
Related: Christian Horner and Red Bull: what happened and what will happen?
Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 ringmaster, saw his potential in the last decade. Echoing Ecclestone’s own choice in the 1950s, Horner recognized the limits of his abilities as a racing driver and retired to pursue a career as a team manager and organiser.
Now, when the car that Max Verstappen hopes for a fourth consecutive drivers’ championship is rolled out during a media launch at Red Bull headquarters scheduled for next Thursday, there is a chance, for the first time since the creation of the team. , Horner will not lead the show.
His survival as chief of staff appears to hinge on the outcome of his meeting Friday with an independent lawyer who will investigate allegations of inappropriate and controlling behavior brought against him by a female employee, which Horner denies.
He has been in fights before, but not like this one, which comes 18 months after the death of the team’s owner, Austrian energy drinks billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, amid rumors of rifts at the top of the team whose dominance was shown last season. last. in a record 21 wins from 22 races.
Horner’s early success running his own Arden Racing saw him enter the F3000 series, one down from F1, which was owned by Ecclestone at the time. When Horner’s drivers won the championship three years in a row as the team’s representative, Ecclestone got to know him and perhaps recognized some of his own characteristics.
“I used to ruin his life,” Horner told me after his team won a fourth consecutive F1 title with Sebastian Vettel. “And when I felt the time was right to switch to F1, he was very supportive. He pushed me towards Jordan at first, but it quickly became clear that he wasn’t going to be serious. Then Red Bull got Jaguar.”
Mateschitz saw a sport involving speed and risk, be it air racing or Alpine skiing, as a vital tool for advancement. Attracted by the idea of bringing such company wealth to F1, Ecclestone steered him towards the struggling Jaguar team whose owner, Ford, was relieved to accept a nominal $1 to get rid of it, as well as redundancy potential and closing costs.
When Ecclestone mentioned the name of a young man who could run the team for him, Mateschitz was ready to take the risk. For Horner, it would mean a sudden transition from running a workforce of 20 to taking control of an operation and then employing nearly 500 people (now about 1,700), starting with the need to boost morale.
Horner already knew Dr Helmut Marko, Mateschitz’s compatriot and motorsport consultant, with whom the current rift – possibly Jos Verstappen, father of the reigning champion – is said to have opened in recent months.
Marko is a former driver who could have been a championship contender had he not lost his eye to a flying stone during a grand prix in 1972. He and Horner competed against each other as team owners in F3000 before Marko left into Mateschitz to create a young Red Bull. driver program, which has prepared ruthlessly to remove those found wanting.
“I’ve always had a very good relationship with Helmut,” said Horner, “even going back to when I joined the Arden team and bought a used trailer from him. I had no idea who he was and what he did. It was this guy in Graz who gave me almost my life savings to this used car carrier. It was done on a handshake. Then I went to his workshop and saw the newspaper clippings of the Austrian legends: Niki Lauda, Jochen Rindt … and Helmut Marko. And I worked out who he was.”
Once installed, Horner put all his efforts into luring star designer Adrian Newey away from McLaren. Both were born in Warwickshire and attended the same pre-school, 10 years apart. During the GP weekend in Monaco Newey accepted the young man’s invitation to a screening of the film Superman Returns, which Red Bull was promoting. During the dinner that followed they began to discuss the possibilities of transferring the design of the championship winning cars to Williams and McLaren. Five years later Vettel was winning the first of the seven drivers and six creators at Red Bull.
Related: How Christian Horner succeeded in the high-octane field for an F1 team
When the decision on Horner’s future would be in the hands of Mateschitz, perhaps under the influence of Ecclestone who is now aside, the situation is not so clear today. Crucially, Horner and Newey are believed to have “key man” clauses in their contracts, which would be voided if the other left.
Newey is the most successful designer in F1 history, and Horner is extremely talented in the publicity game. Often photographed at social events with his ex-Spice Girl wife Geri, and always ready to offer his carefully focused comments to any available microphone or notebook, he and Toto Wolff Mercedes have after sharing the headlines with an often memorable double act. Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger.
Like almost everyone in F1, but perhaps more than most, Horner has made enemies along the way. Three weeks before the start of the season in Bahrain, they will be awaiting the outcome of the lawyer’s discussion, and the impact it may have on the immediate future of F1, with more than the usual level of interest.