Christian Horner controversy ‘is damaging the sport’, says FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem

Christian Horner and Mohammed Ben Sulayem talk in the pit lane during final practice ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix on Friday
Christian Horner and Mohammed Ben Sulayem talk in the pit lane during final practice ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix on Friday - Getty Images/Peter Fox

The president of Formula One’s governing body made a high-profile intervention in the ongoing Christian Horner controversy on Friday night when he said the furore “is damaging the sport”.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the FIA president, shared his thoughts on the Red Bull crisis, which intensified following Thursday’s explosive leak of WhatsApp exchanges.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Sulayem – who spoke with Horner during practice at the Bahrain GP earlier on Friday – also said it was vital to “protect our sport from all of this”.

“It is the beginning of the season,” he said. “F1 is becoming so popular. We just need to enjoy the beginning of the season. Look at the competition. Why do we overshadow it with negativity?”

The rumoured ‘second tranche’ of confidential data from the Horner inquiry, widely expected to land in inboxes up and down the paddock on Friday night, did not materialise.

Instead, Friday at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix ended in something approaching normality: Max Verstappen taking pole for the first race of the season.

To describe this as a normal day in Formula One, though, would be stretching things. The fallout from Thursday’s leak of WhatsApp exchanges, purportedly between Horner and the female employee who accused him of inappropriate behaviour, is not going away in a hurry.

Despite the grievance case against him having been dismissed by an independent barrister appointed by Red Bull’s parent company earlier this week, Horner remains a man under intense scrutiny.

There remain calls for more transparency from Red Bull over the ruling, for the FIA or Formula One Management to take action, and frenzied speculation as to what Red Bull’s partners such as Ford and Oracle are thinking.

After taking pole, Verstappen conceded his team principal was probably “a little bit distracted” at the moment. That is an understatement.

Max Verstappen talks with Christian Horner in the garage during final practice ahead of the Grand Prix of Bahrain on Friday
Max Verstappen talks with Horner in the garage during final practice on Friday in Bahrain - Getty Images/Bob McCaffrey

It feels vaguely surreal. Just the act of Horner turning up in the paddock first thing on Friday morning was big news.

Horner told Sky Sports it was time to “go racing” – the only thing he said in public all day – but there was little chance of moving the narrative on.

News emerged that Geri Horner, his wife, had touched down in Bahrain the previous evening, aboard property billionaire Tony Gallagher’s private jet. The former Spice Girl is expected to attend today’s race in a show of solidarity with her husband.

Christian Horner in conversation before qualifying
Horner at the Bahrain International Circuit on Friday - PA/David Davies

FIA president Sulayem arrived midway through the day and was seen chatting to Horner during FP3. He later called him to his office for a meeting with F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali.

In their discussions over how best to move forward, it is understood both the FIA and F1 are keen to get their hands on the full Red Bull report, so that they can provide some assurances to the rest of the paddock that they are satisfied with the company’s decision over the grievance complaint.

It seems doubtful that Red Bull will share it. In its statement clearing Horner on Wednesday, the team’s parent company in Austria said it was satisfied that its process had been “fair, rigorous and impartial”. But it insisted that it would not share the report, which is understood to run to hundreds of pages, as it was “confidential and contained the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation”.

Threat of disrepute charge

One possible regulatory lever the FIA has is to launch its own investigation using the threat of a disrepute charge. Article 12.2.1.c of the International Sporting Code states competitors will be deemed to have committed an offence for: “Any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any Competition or to the interests of motor sport generally.”

But by the end of the day the chances of that happening felt as if they had receded significantly. Even if Red Bull agreed to share the report, or an executive summary of it, it requires the consent of both parties in a grievance case to hand such a document over. Ironically, now that much of the alleged data is in the public domain, Horner might no longer object. But his accuser might, given she lost the case.

And so we head into the first race of the season with the shadow of the investigation very much still hovering over the sport. Martin Brundle, on Sky Sports, summed up the mood of many when he described himself as “sad about the whole thing”.

He added: “F1 is all over the front pages, all over the internet all around the world and it’s not about the racing. It’s not about who’s going to win this grand prix or who’s going to be on pole position. So I think it’s unquestionable that what’s going on isn’t good for F1 and I do believe that some actions need to be taken to move this along and to bring this to an absolute conclusion.

“We’ll have to wait and see but what we do know is that all allegations have been denied, and that it’s just a horrible situation, whichever way you look at it, isn’t it?”

It certainly is. After taking the 33rd pole of his career, Verstappen, predictably, was asked whether he still had faith in his team principal. “It’s not our business to get involved in that,” he replied. “We are paid to do our job, that is what we are out there doing, and that is what we love doing and that is what we focus on.

“When I look at how Christian operates within the team he has been an incredible boss so from the performance kind of things you can’t question that.

“I speak to Christian a lot and he is fully committed to the team. He is here for the performance, and of course he is a little bit distracted. But we just focus on the performance side of things and that is how we all work together.”

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