Christian Horner claims come amid Red Bull ‘power struggle’

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner at the 2022 Mexico Grand Prix
Christian Horner is facing allegations of ‘inappropriate controlling behaviour’ - AP/Moises Castillo

Formula One’s major players were locked in an F1 Commission meeting at FOM’s offices in London on Monday when the news broke that Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, was under investigation for “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

Apparently, with everyone’s phones pinging as the news lit up social media, Horner moved to address the elephant in the room. He said he knew exactly what all the messages they were receiving were about and added the allegations were completely untrue.

The timing of the story was unfortunate for Horner. Or perhaps it was not. There are suggestions from some quarters that it was far from coincidental, but instead designed to cause maximum embarrassment.

Obviously, there is an independent investigation ongoing which will determine the truth of the matter. And if the allegations are proven then Horner should be held accountable.

But there have also long been rumours of a power struggle behind the scenes at the all-conquering Red Bull team. Or at least there have been since the death of Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz in late 2022. And the fact that Red Bull Austria has taken the lead on this story, rather than Red Bull’s human resources department, is interesting.

To give some background: Mateschitz, the billionaire Austrian, owner and spiritual figurehead of the team, was unequivocally the boss. His word brooked no argument. The F1 team was his passion, his joy. Since his death, and ironically as things on track have become more and more successful, things have become more blurred behind the scenes.

Initially there were questions asked about whether the money would continue to flow endlessly; whether Mateschitz’s son and heir Mark Mateschitz would be as committed to F1; whether Red Bull’s Thai partners would have other ideas. Those doubts were seemingly put to bed when Red Bull appointed a new board of directors to oversee their business empire following the death of their founder, with F1 falling under the remit of ex-RB Leipzig chairman Oliver Mintzlaff who was appointed chief executive.

After a few months spent taking stock of the situation, Mintzlaff appeared to take the view that the team were profitable and winning and just to let them crack on.

But rumours that Horner has since had a strained relationship with Austria have refused to go away. Last autumn, as the team were wrapping up the most successful season in Formula One history, with 21 wins from 22 races, there was renewed speculation that Horner was at loggerheads with Red Bull GmbH’s motorsport advisor Helmut Marko.

Specifically, there was a suggestion that Horner wanted to oust the 80-year-old.

Marko, who is outspoken and often indiscreet in his dealings with the media, had recently landed himself in hot water when he blamed the fluctuating form of the team’s Mexican driver Sergio Pérez on his ethnicity. Governing body the FIA gave him a written warning for his conduct.

Publicly all sides played down the speculation. Horner acknowledged that there had been some “small differences of opinion” between himself and Marko about Red Bull’s direction since Mateschitz’s death, but insisted that “everything was fine”, while Marko himself said that “Mr Horner” will not be the person to tell him when his F1 time is up. “The division of labour looks like this,” Marko said. “Christian does the operational stuff, I’m more into the strategy. That’s good. It’s worked so far and we’ll see that it works in the future too.”

Horner went as far as to speculate that Red Bull’s rivals might be stirring the pot. “As we’ve tied up both championships, there’s not a lot to be talking about, so it’s very easy for others to wind the situation up.”

But perhaps there is no smoke without fire. Certainly, if Horner was engaged in a power struggle with Marko, it would be a bloody fight. The Austrian may be 80 but he was instrumental in bringing Max Verstappen to the team as the youngest ever Formula One driver and remains a huge influence with both the triple champion and his family. He was also Mateschitz’s friend and confidant.

It remains unclear what will happen with the investigation. Sources close to the team fear further allegations could yet come out. Horner is adamant he has done nothing wrong. Formula One has not commented at all, no doubt mindful of the speed with which the FIA’s inquest into Toto and Susie Wolff was shut down last month. But even if he is cleared of wrongdoing, questions about divisions behind the scenes are unlikely to go away.

It would be ironic indeed if, after a record year of success, and with the prospect of more to come in 2024 and 2025 – Lewis Hamilton said last year that he did not expect anyone to be able to challenge the Milton Keynes-based team until the next major regulation change in 2026 – the Red Bull juggernaut was derailed by internal wrangling.

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