Red Bull’s wings clipped as Horner furore leaves F1 champions in flux

<span>The Red Bull factory in Milton Keynes.</span><span>Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters</span>
The Red Bull factory in Milton Keynes.Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation into Christian Horner for alleged inappropriate behaviour, the damage to his Red Bull team has surely already been done. From flying high on the wings the energy drink boasts and arguably at the height of their Formula One powers, the 2023 champions have been brought back to earth with a mighty bang, a swathe of exceptional achievements overshadowed by claims that have been damaging to the all-conquering team’s reputation.

The allegations against Horner came to light on Monday when Red Bull’s parent company, the energy drink manufacturer, announced a thorough external investigation into what is understood to have been described as Horner’s “controlling” behaviour made by a female member of Red Bull Racing’s staff.

Related: How Christian Horner rose to power in Formula One … and stayed there | Richard Williams

On Friday, Horner attended an eight-hour meeting in London with the English KC conducting the investigation to make his case against the allegations, which he has emphatically denied. As was expected, no decision was made on the day and the investigation continues. Horner may yet be completely exonerated but that it has prompted such interest and such widespread coverage ensures it has already had an effect on Red Bull.

Before this week, Red Bull Racing were enjoying success surpassing any other point in their remarkable history. They took four titles between 2010 and 2013 but the past two years have seen another step forward. Since the regulation changes of 2022, Max Verstappen has swept to the championship in both seasons. Last year Red Bull won 21 of 22 races, a once almost unthinkable record and one unlikely to be beaten.

Horner’s team were streets ahead of their rivals and had maintained their image as the F1 disruptors, the team that played by their own rules. For the parent company Red Bull GmbH, they were the jewel in the crown of its sporting investments.

The timing too could not have been better. The success was delivered just as F1 was enjoying an enormous surge in interest, especially in the United States thanks to the Netflix series Drive to Survive. As marketing tools go Red Bull had hit the mother lode.

Horner, who has led Red Bull since their inception in 2005, was at the heart of the team and very much a character in the broader narrative. His rivalry with Mercedes’ Toto Wolff was key to the story and a central tenet of the sport’s appeal. Horner, never shy of putting his position to the media, was the showman, the opinionated frontman that F1 perhaps never knew it needed.

The 50-year-old was front and centre so often, not least because Verstappen was delivering on his promise with clinical precision. It was the perfect storm all the other teams fear: a dominant car with a driver able to exploit it to such an extent that not even his teammate could come close to him.

Red Bull Racing then were in a rarefied position and looking forward to riding the wave. There are no indications they will be toppled in 2024. Of course there are expectations their rivals may come closer, but such was the advantage last season they shifted resources to this year’s car as early as August.

They were set to be centre stage again and Horner would be conducting the orchestra. The events of this week have rocked this celebratory edifice to its foundations. Horner’s place in it remains undecided, while the team, only a week ago stable and focused, ambitious and upbeat, have been left shocked by the allegations against the principal. It must be clear that if Horner is found guilty of the allegations, then the only course of action is to remove him from his post.

As it stands with his fate still undecided, the furore must have been destabilising and a distraction at a crucial point of preparation for the new season. There is hope the investigation will be concluded before the team’s launch of their new car on Thursday but there is no guarantee this will be the case. It is understood the investigation is under no pressure to conclude quickly and that if further meetings are required they will be held. After Friday, the investigation even stretching as far as the start of the season was mooted.

Should Horner go the effect would be even worse, likely requiring an entirely new management structure since he is both chief executive of all the Red Bull Racing wings as well as the team principal. Losing the man who had forged the team for 20 years would require adaptation while going into a new season by the team that would be an enormous ask. Worse still if, as has been suggested, it emerges this was part of a power struggle between the parent company and the F1 team, it will sour relations with the vast majority of staff who are loyal to Horner. They will have to be won over by the new management structure, whatever form that takes.

Yet at this stage they cannot move on to a new regime nor continue as is and put this week behind them. Should the investigation continue even longer, it will only be more harmful. Horner’s fate and the future of his Red Bull team hang in the balance.