How death of Red Bull’s founding father led to civil war

Oracle Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner and Oracle Red Bull Racing Team Consultant Dr Helmut Marko look on in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 09, 2024 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Helmut Marko (left) and Christian Horner (right) have seen their relationship break down - Getty Images/Clive Rose

To understand the root cause of the internecine war raging at Red Bull, it is necessary to go back to October 2022; to the death of Dietrich Mateschitz, the team’s founding father.

Mateschitz’s passing, and the power vacuum that created, has led inexorably to what we are witnessing today; to the vicious infighting between team principal Christian Horner on the one side, and Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s octogenarian motorsport adviser, and Jos Verstappen, father of three-time world champion Max Verstappen, on the other.

For years, Mateschitz reigned supreme. Although he owned only 49 per cent of the Red Bull empire, compared with the Thais’ 51 per cent, he was effectively the main man and his word was final. The race team were his baby. Marko, Mateschitz’s friend and confidant, was the intermediary between Horner and Salzburg.

After his death, Red Bull GmbH created a new management structure, with three chief executives effectively running the business. The sporting side fell to Oliver Mintzlaff. But almost immediately cracks began to appear in the previously strong working relationship between Milton Keynes and Austria.

Before his passing in 2022, Dietrich Mateschitz was effectively the main man at Red Bull and his word was final
Before his passing in 2022, Dietrich Mateschitz was effectively the main man at Red Bull and his word was final - Reuters/Lisi Niesner

There was tension over a possible partnership with Porsche, which would have given the German manufacturer a 50 per cent stake in the team. Horner was against it, as was Marko. Then there were tensions over a title sponsorship for Red Bull’s sister team AlphaTauri relating to brands Visa and Hugo.

From the outside looking in, the relationship with Marko began to break down in 2023. Sources suggest the Austrian had grown increasingly redundant without his friend Mateschitz.

But things really soured after Marko blamed Sergio Perez’s fluctuating form last season on his “cultural heritage”. Marko was given a written warning by Red Bull Austria and forced to issue a public apology. More importantly, according to those close to him, he felt Horner did not support him enough in public.

Either way, stories began to emerge of a “power struggle” between Horner and Marko, between Milton Keynes and Austria, with Verstappen and his father rallying behind Marko. Horner was accused of agitating for Marko’s removal, something he denied.

Oracle Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner talks with Jos Verstappen in the Paddock prior to practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on February 29, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain
The relationship between Horner and Jos Verstappen is clearly at a low ebb - Getty Images/Clive Rose

It is unclear when exactly the “escape clause” was added to Verstappen’s contract – the mysterious addendum that has come to light only recently, allegedly allowing Verstappen to walk should Marko ever leave – but it is believed to have been around this time.

Incredibly, given he is both team principal and chief executive of Red Bull Racing, Horner is understood not to have known about the clause being added. Telegraph Sport has been told Marko added it himself, as a director of the company, with no one from Red Bull Racing or Group being aware. Red Bull declined to comment when asked whether this was true.

Either way, with the battle lines having been drawn, and paranoia starting to creep in, along came the trigger for the chaos of the past few weeks. Did Horner’s accuser go to Austria of her own accord to make those allegations of inappropriate behaviour against him? Was she prompted by a third party? That remains unclear. As does the nature of the relationship between the accuser and Verstappen’s father.

Telegraph Sport has spoken to multiple witnesses who claim they saw Horner’s accuser kissing him at Red Bull’s post-Abu Dhabi 2021 grand prix victory party aboard a yacht.

One thing is clear, the allegations against Horner were a potential smoking gun. The Austrian faction were reportedly keen to get rid of Horner. They thought it would be cut and dried. But they did not count on Chalerm Yoovidhya, Red Bull’s Thai majority owner (51 per cent), backing the team principal and demanding a full investigation.

Christian Horner of Great Britain and Oracle Red Bull Racing and Chalerm Yoovidhya on the grid during the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 2, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain
Chalerm Yoovidhya, a part-owner of Red Bull, is public supporter of Horner's - Getty Images/Qian Jun

It remains unclear why Horner was not suspended at this point. What is known is that he was told in early January that an external specialist barrister was being appointed to look into the allegations. Again, why the identity of that barrister cannot be shared in the interests of transparency is unclear. But what was meant to be an internal investigation soon became a public pile-on when the investigation was made public by Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf on Feb 5.

Who leaked it? That may form part of a secondary investigation that it has become clear is now being carried out by Red Bull GmbH. But if the intention was to pile public pressure on to the private pressure already being heaped on Horner, it worked.

As the anonymous KC went about his investigation – compiling his 100-plus page report based on over 60 hours of interviews with multiple witnesses – Horner faced huge media scrutiny, which only ratcheted up still further when more allegations were published by De Telegraaf the day after Red Bull’s season launch.

Again, the intention appeared to be to humiliate Horner and pile further pressure on Red Bull GmbH.

If there was any doubt of a “dirty war” being waged, it disappeared altogether the day after Red Bull’s parent company announced on Feb 28 that the grievance case against Horner had been dismissed. A huge tranche of flirty, sometimes lewd WhatsApp messages, purportedly between Horner and his accuser, were leaked by anonymous email to journalists and paddock figures.

Suddenly the battle was being raged out in the open.

We know now that Horner’s accuser has been suspended as a direct result of the investigation. The BBC reports she was told concerns around the accuracy and consistency of her evidence had been given as an explanation.

But by now the investigation was almost secondary to the public battle raging at the top of Red Bull Racing. Jos Verstappen and Horner had a blazing row in Bahrain, with Verstappen snr reportedly telling the Red Bull principal he knew that Horner suspected him of being behind the leaks, something Verstappen snr vehemently denied.

The next day, after Horner’s former Spice Girls wife Geri and Yoovidhya turned up in support of Horner at the season-opening race, Jos went public with his feelings, calling on Horner to resign before the team “exploded”.

Oracle Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner and Geri Horner react in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 09, 2024 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Horner has enjoyed the public support of his wife Geri during the first two races of the season - Getty Images/Clive Rose

This week it was Marko’s turn when he suggested on Friday that he could be “suspended” by Red Bull. Was it a final throw of the dice? Was Marko daring Red Bull to get rid of him? Was he trying to trigger the “escape clause” in Verstappen’s contract? That remains to be seen.

Marko turned up in the paddock in Jeddah on Saturday, a few hours before the race, side by side with Mintzlaff, announcing they had positive talks and that he was staying after all. Given all that we know, it would be a miracle if there were not further twists in store.

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