How Christian Horner’s first day back in F1 as a ‘free’ man rapidly fell apart

Christian Horner on the phone
Christian Horner's body language betrayed stress as the day progressed - Kym Illman/Getty Images

When Christian Horner arrived at the Bahrain International Circuit for the start of the Formula One season on Thursday, he did his best impression of a man who had finally put the worst crisis of his career behind him.

The Red Bull team principal, who had been cleared hours earlier of inappropriate behaviour towards a female colleague, appeared determined to let it be known that it was business as usual as he strode into the paddock alongside close ally Adrian Newey.

The two had breakfast at the Red Bull motorhome together, the design guru’s latest sidepod invention having been the talk of the grid at last week’s testing session – that is if you ignored the other big story in town.

Christian Horner and Adrian Newey
Christian Horner takes breakfast with Adrian Newey as if to emphasise it is 'business as usual' - Mark Thompson/Getty Images

That testing session came when Horner was fighting for his survival, accused of bullying and coercive behaviour that triggered an investigation in January but which only came to public light the following month. Having been exonerated in a statement from parent company Red Bull GmbH on Wednesday, Horner looked to be in the clear pending any further appeal.

He did not hide from the television crews desperate to air his first comments since the weeks-long investigation into a complaint against him drew to a close, though there remained no sign of wife and former Spice Girl Geri Horner amid rumours leading into the event that she would attend should Wednesday’s verdict fall in her husband’s favour.

However, his air of apparent imperturbability was not to last long into the afternoon. Horner took a phone call and his body language betrayed mounting stress. He met with team adviser Helmut Marko, the Austrian consultant rumoured to be part of the power struggle taking place over the racing element of the energy drink giant’s F1 arm. As if to put on a united front, Horner and Marko had flown into Bahrain together via private jet the prior evening.

After another phone call, Horner met with Max Verstappen’s father Jos – who appeared to do most of the talking in a short but animated conversation. Telegraph Sport reported this week how Verstappen Snr had a close relationship with the woman who accused Horner of ‘bullying’ behaviour, this the first time that the pair had been seen together publicly since the investigation came to light.

Oracle Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner talks with Jos Verstappen
Horner has a brief chat with Jos Verstappen - Clive Rose/Getty Image

Horner was at least all smiles when warmly embracing the three-time reigning world champion himself, who stopped for a moment to speak with his team principal ahead of the opening practice sessions of the season. The Prime Minister of Bahrain, Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, was another to be greeted with a handshake.

But it was not business as usual for Horner on or off the track, for a team who have virtually monopolised F1 for three years found themselves surprisingly off the pace. Verstappen could be heard complaining “everything is ----, miles off” as he finished sixth in first practice, almost three-tenths of a second off the pace set by Daniel Ricciardo in the sister – and slower – VisaCashApp RB team.

That was followed by an official FIA press conference at which Horner’s fellow team principals got to have their say about the outcome of the investigation into him and the questions that remained unanswered about exactly what had taken place.

His rivals were about to get more clarity than they bargained for by virtue of a bombshell leak of secret evidence from the investigation in question.

A cache of “Christian Horner investigation evidence” including screengrabs from WhatsApp messages and images shared between Horner and his accuser was sent from an anonymous email address to Formula One owners Liberty Media, chief executive Stefano Domenicali, team principals, and hundreds of journalists.

To compound matters, the second practice session ended with Verstappen still in sixth and a Mercedes one-two, with Lewis Hamilton and George Russell half a second quicker.

With Horner meeting a concerned-looking Verstappen and race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase in the Red Bull garage afterwards for a debrief, it was left for a spokesman to read a statement on the beleaguered team principal’s behalf that was later circulated to the media.

Red Bull expect their long-stint race pace to be much stronger than their early practice showing, but how long Horner can maintain his own grip over the sport remains to be seen.