Red Bull team boss Christian HornerPhoto: Dan Istitene/Formula 1/Getty Images
When Christian Horner first took his seat at a meeting of Formula 1 team bosses in 2005, barely in his thirties and a surprise appointment as head of the new Red Bull team, he entered a world populated by legendary figures. Sir Frank Williams, McLaren’s Ron Dennis and Ferrari’s Jean Todt had fought and won all their lives in a highly complex, intensely competitive and highly politicized environment.
Horner could easily have been eaten alive, like so many before him, had he not benefited from the support of a patron whose power exceeded that of all his rivals.
Related: Christian Horner and Red Bull: What happened and what comes next?
Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s ringmaster, had discovered his potential over the past decade. Following the choice made by Ecclestone himself in the 1950s, Horner had recognized the limits of his abilities as a driver and stepped out of the cockpit to pursue a career as a team manager and organiser.
Now if the car with which Max Verstappen hopes to win a fourth consecutive Drivers’ Championship is rolled out during a media launch at Red Bull’s headquarters, scheduled for next Thursday, there is a chance, for the first time since the team was created, will Horner does not chair the show.
His survival as team boss appears to depend on the outcome of his meeting on Friday with an independent lawyer who will investigate allegations of inappropriate and controlling behavior made against him by a female employee, which Horner denies.
He has fought before, but not like this one, which comes 18 months after the death of the team’s owner, Austrian energy drink billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, amid rumors of division at the top of a team whose dominance last season was reflected in a record of 21 wins from 22 races.
Horner’s early success running his own Arden Racing took him into the F3000 series, a series that emerged from F1 and was then owned by Ecclestone. When Horner’s drivers won the championship three years in a row and he became the team’s representative, Ecclestone got to know him and perhaps recognized some of his own qualities.
“I was always teasing the life out of him,” Horner told me after his team won its fourth straight F1 title with Sebastian Vettel. “And when I felt the time was right to make the move to F1, he was a great support. He initially pushed me towards Jordan, but it soon became clear that it wouldn’t be anything serious. Then Red Bull took over Jaguar.”
Mateschitz saw sports involving speed and risk, whether air racing or alpine skiing, as an essential promotional tool. Attracted by the idea that the wealth of such a company would become available to F1, Ecclestone led him to the struggling Jaguar team whose owner, Ford, was relieved to accept a nominal $1 to get rid of it, along with potential severance and closing costs.
When Ecclestone mentioned the name of a young man who could lead the team for him, Mateschitz was willing to take the risk. For Horner, it would mean a sudden transition from running a staff of 20 to taking control of an operation that then employed nearly 500 people (now about 1,700), starting with the need to boost morale.
Horner knew Dr. Helmut Marko, Mateschitz’s compatriot and motorsport advisor, with whom the current rift – perhaps also around Jos Verstappen, the father of the current champion – is said to have arisen in recent months.
Marko is a former racing driver who might have become a championship contender had he not lost an 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 joined Mateschitz to create the young Red Bull driver. driver program, to which he has added a ruthless willingness to cull those found to be at fault.
“I have always had a very good relationship with Helmut,” said Horner, “even back to when I started the Arden team and bought a second-hand trailer from him. I had no idea who he was or what he had done. He was a man from Graz to whom I almost gave my savings for this second-hand car transporter. It all happened with a handshake. Then I went to his studio and saw newspaper clippings of Austrian legends: Niki Lauda, Jochen Rindt… and Helmut Marko. And I found out who he was.”
Once installed, Horner did everything he could to lure star designer Adrian Newey away from McLaren. Both were born in Warwickshire and had attended the same secondary school ten years apart. During the Monaco GP weekend, Newey accepted the younger man’s invitation to a gala premiere of the film Superman Returns, which Red Bull was promoting. Over dinner afterwards they began discussing the possibility of a move for the designer of championship-winning cars for Williams and McLaren. Five years later, Vettel won the first of Red Bull’s seven drivers’ and six constructors’ titles.
Related: How Christian Horner has thrived in the exciting atmosphere of an F1 team
Where once the decision on Horner’s future would have rested in Mateschitz’s hands, perhaps influenced by the now sidelined Ecclestone, today the position is less clear. Crucially, Horner and Newey are both understood to have ‘key man’ clauses in their contracts, which would be void if the other left.
Newey is the most successful designer in F1 history, while Horner has proven particularly adept at the publicity game. Often photographed at social events with his wife, Geri, a former Spice Girl, and always ready to deliver his carefully focused opinion through any available microphone or notebook, he and Mercedes’ Toto Wolff have shared headlines with an often vindictive double act that does think of Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.
Like virtually 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 await with more than the usual degree of interest the outcome of the lawyer’s deliberations and its potential effect on F1’s immediate future.