How the Red Bull debacle has shaken Formula One – and why Christian Horner isn’t out of the woods

Christian Horner
Horner is one of the most powerful men not only at Red Bull Racing but in F1 - Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Unless you are a fan of Formula 1 or its slick Netflix docusoap, Drive To Survive, the name Christian Horner quite possibly meant nothing to you before this month.

You most certainly know who he is now though, after the Red Bull Racing team delivered a masterclass in reputational self-destruction.

Horner is the team principal of Red Bull, a scrappy little terrier of a man whose cars have utterly dominated the sport for the past two years. In his 19 years in the job, he has delivered six constructors’ championships and seven drivers’ championships to his bosses at the energy drinks giant.

To the general public though, he is now better known as the man accused of sending flirty and sometimes lewd WhatsApp messages to a female colleague, an episode that may forever overshadow his prodigious achievements in F1.

The fact that Horner’s wife happens to be former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell has only served to add extra, well, spice to the saga.

Halliwell and Horner did not shy away from photographers in Bahrain
Halliwell and Horner did not shy away from photographers in Bahrain - Ali Haider/Shutterstock

More than a month after reports of Horner’s alleged controlling behaviour first surfaced, Red Bull is no nearer to extinguishing the bin fire in its midst. If anything, its actions have only served to keep the blaze going.

Red Bull decided on Thursday to suspend the woman who accused Horner of abusing his power. This after Horner had tried to portray himself as the victim, saying the past weeks had been “very trying” for his family.

So is this a simple case of a big corporation throwing a woman under a bus to protect a valuable alpha male asset? Is there more to it behind the scenes? And can Horner really carry on as if nothing has happened?

Horner, 50, has maintained from the outset that he is innocent of all allegations against him. Yet he has never denied that WhatsApp messages between him and the female employee, leaked to the media on Feb 29 and now widely disseminated online, are genuine.

The WhatsApps he exchanged with his colleague are flirty, to put it mildly. Some are overtly sexual in nature. It is fair to say that any wife reading such messages sent by her husband to another woman might consider it a divorcing matter.

What we do not know is whether the messages have been in any way edited, or if there are other messages that have not been included in the leak and might cast the episode in a different light. Team Horner has certainly tried to suggest this.

Anyone trying to make sense of the murky drip-feed of revelations in recent weeks might well have asked themselves whether this was a case of an office flirtation turned sour, in which a willing female participant decided to take a rich man to the cleaners when it came to an end.

If she did not explicitly tell him from the outset to stop sending her provocative messages, she might argue that she feared the consequences of doing so. There is arguably a power imbalance between the two: Horner is one of the most powerful men not only at Red Bull Racing but in F1. The woman in question is, compared to him, a nobody.

It is important to state that Horner has been subjected to what Red Bull insist was an independent investigation conducted by an external barrister, who cleared him of wrongdoing on Feb 28. Yet Red Bull has never even named the barrister involved, leading to claims from rival teams that the process has been about as transparent as a lump of Tarmac.

Toto Wolff, team boss of Mercedes and Horner’s arch rival, is among those who demanded transparency in the process, saying that senior F1 figures were “role models” in a global sport. Horner’s supporters, of course, might argue that Wolff, unable to lay a glove on Horner on the track, will seize any opportunity that presents itself to destabilise Red Bull by other means.

Mercedes F1's executive director Toto Wolff has demanded transparency in the process
Mercedes F1's executive director Toto Wolff has demanded transparency in the process - Clive Rose/Getty Images

If the woman in question ends up being sacked or quits her job, she may well explore the option of taking Red Bull to an employment tribunal, but even if she won, there would be no obligation on Red Bull to take any action against Horner.

Horner, though, is by no means out of the woods. There are other players, and other plot threads, in this story, many of whom will have considerable influence over its ending.

Horner has insisted that the Red Bull team is united, and it is true that the psychodrama did nothing to prevent another imperious performance at last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, where Red Bull’s cars finished first and second.

Any suggestion that Red Bull is a happy camp, though, is laughable. Jos Verstappen, father and mentor of Red Bull’s No1 driver and triple world champion Max Verstappen, wants Horner out.

“There is tension here while he remains in position,” he said on March 2. “The team is in danger of being torn apart. It can’t go on the way it is. It will explode.

“He is playing the victim, when he is the one causing the problems.”

Speculation about Verstappen’s future remains intense, helped along by the fact that his father has been seen having conversations with Wolff.

Jos Verstappen, left, the father of Red Bull's No1 driver and triple world champion Max Verstappen, wants Christian Horner out
Jos Verstappen, left, the father of Red Bull's No1 driver and triple world champion Max Verstappen, wants Christian Horner out - Clive Rose/Getty Images

It has also been reported that Verstappen – under contract until 2028 – has a break clause in his contract that allows him to walk away if Red Bull’s 80-year-old adviser Helmut Marko, to whom he is close, leaves the Milton Keynes-based team. Crucially, Marko, who is directly employed by Red Bull rather than Red Bull Racing, is regarded as an opponent, rather than an ally, of Horner.

Then there are Red Bull Racing’s partners. Honda, its engine supplier, has called for “full clarity” on the situation and Ford, which will be Red Bull’s engine partner from 2026, has said that: “Ford’s values are non-negotiable. It is imperative that our racing partners share and demonstrate a genuine commitment to those same values.”

Red Bull Racing, of course, is a subsidiary of a much bigger beast, Red Bull GmbH. It is a company built entirely on marketing and brand recognition, which is why it ploughs so many millions into sponsoring and funding high-octane sports like F1.

Red Bull is not a household essential, meaning the strength of its brand is all-important. If the Formula 1 team’s parent company fears – or sees any evidence that – the Horner saga is damaging that brand, his position is likely to become perilous.

Friday is International Women’s Day, and Red Bull’s “B” team on the F1 grid, RB, lined up on the grid for qualifying in Saudi Arabia with a decal on its cars saying: “Happy International Women’s Day to all the incredible women on our team! You make the difference”. The name of every female employee was then listed beneath. Horner’s own team did not follow suit. Red Bull’s own research shows 31 per cent of its consumers are women, accounting for £2.6 billion of sales.

Yet Mark Borkowski, one of the UK’s most experienced PR advisers, thinks we might all be looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

“F1 is a global sport and the average F1 fan in Spain, Italy or Saudi Arabia doesn’t care about this,” he said. “Red Bull has always been a maverick and it’s a very male sport.”

Horner retains the support of the most important woman in his life, Halliwell, who walked hand in hand with him in Bahrain. For now, he also appears to have the support of Red Bull’s majority shareholder Chalerm Yoovidhya, whose Thai father Chaleo co-founded Red Bull with Austrian marketing genius Dietrich Mateschitz.

The Horners with Chalerm Yoovidhya in Bahrain
The Horners with Chalerm Yoovidhya in Bahrain - Kym Illman/Getty Images

Yoovidhya and his wife Daranee joined Horner and Halliwell at the Bahrain Grand Prix to watch Verstappen win the opening race of the season.

Horner is close to Yoovidhya (former driver Ralf Schumacher has said Yoovidhya sees Horner as “some sort of foster son”) and also enjoyed the unwavering support of Mateschitz until his death in 2022. Mateschitz’s son and heir, Mark, who owns 49 per cent of Red Bull GmbH, reportedly wants Horner out, but Yoovidhya retains the ultimate veto.

Horner said before this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix that it was time to “move on” from the controversy. Ironically the total dominance of his team (which won all but one of last season’s races) means there is little excitement on the track to divert attention away from Red Bull’s HR issues.

Borkowski believes there are still potential dangers ahead, particularly if the woman who made the complaint decides to go public with an interview. “If it turns out there is more to this story,” he said, “people start running for cover and there has to be a sacrificial lamb, and that would be Horner.”

The destiny of the Formula 1 championship might seem a foregone conclusion, but as things stand Horner’s continued presence on the pit wall is not.

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