Exclusive interview with Christian Horner: Formula One's new owners Liberty Media must grab bull by the horns, says team boss

Julian Harris
Follow Julian
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner wants Formula One to go back to basics

Turning into the Tilbrook business park on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, one feels a million miles from the glamour and pizzazz of Formula One – yet here lies the unassuming headquarters of Red Bull Racing, the team led by Christian Horner since its inception nearly 13 years ago.

An opulent trophy wall greets visitors, glimmering silverware reflecting the spirit of a sport that Red Bull dominated between 2010 and 2013. The wall aside, there is little pomp or ceremony. Globally-renowned design chief Adrian Newey ambles through the lobby, casually exchanging pleasantries with the receptionists. A few minutes later Horner, equally relaxed, strolls out to say hello.

A former racing driver himself, Horner clearly feels at home among the Red Bull family. "One of the key reasons behind our success here has been clear stability and you can see we have a very low turnover of staff," he says, speaking just weeks ahead of the start of a new season.

"I came to Red Bull 13 years ago and it's fantastic because [Red Bull co-founder] Dietrich Mateschitz and [team adviser] Helmut Marko have given me the freedom to get on and build and run the team. They've been tremendously supportive in the good times and bad, of assembling a strong group and having stability – and in any sport you need that."

Asked if he might ever move to a rival F1 team, the response is straightforward – "I can't envisage that."

Family man

A high-profile marriage to former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell – who recently gave birth to their son – has not altered Horner's ambition or commitment to racing.

"I'm not retiring just because I became a father!" he scoffs.

"My commitment is absolutely to the team as long as the team’s commitment is to Formula One. [We] have a commitment up until the end of 2020, but it goes beyond that – I love to compete, I love competing with this team. Having been involved here from the beginning, having put a group of people together, I feel responsible for them. And it’s exciting; I'm just as excited about going to the first grand prix in Melbourne now as I was 13 years ago."

Read more: Formula One has been left behind by other sports, says Lewis Hamilton

F1 Grand Prix of USA
(Source: Getty)

Red Bull's future in F1 has been cast into doubt during recent seasons, following the introduction of complex and expensive hybrid engines – a regulation change that ended the team's consecutive run of championship victories and ushered in a new era of domination by Mercedes. Mateschitz, the firm's motorsport-loving owner, has issued sporadic threats, insisting he will withdraw from F1 if it does not become more competitive.

Engine technology aside, what else will it take to keep the team in place?

"We need to see audiences grow, we need to see a clearly defined digital strategy, engagement through social channels, and a broader reach, a growing fanbase – they're all key factors to Red Bull. Red Bull will pay a very keen watching brief to see what is going to be the future direction of the sport."

New owner, new era

It sounds like an ultimatum, but Horner is optimistic about the future under new owners Liberty Media. The US giant – which holds stakes in Time Warner, Live Nation, and Viacom – completed a £6.4bn takeover of F1 from private equity firm CVC during the current off-season.

"The refreshing thing about the new owners is they are ultimately a media company, they're promoters, they are interested in generating great content – because that's how they drive their viewerships and therefore revenue streams," he says.

"I think that's encouraging. What Liberty are very, very good at – they talk about making events... putting on a great show so that there’s fan engagement from the moment they arrive [to] the moment they leave, [putting on a] great spectacle, embracing the local culture and environment et cetera – and if we can achieve that I think it would be phenomenal."

The Red Bull chief's ideas for F1 are simple and unsurprising. He is blunt about what he sees as the sport's failings in recent years: primarily the introduction of complicated technology that has seen costs rocket and led to Mercedes winning the last three constructors' world titles by nearly 300 points each season.

"Formula One over the last few years has in many ways embraced too much technology which has zero relevance to the fan in the grandstand, and we've damaged the DNA of the sport," Horner says, echoing the sentiment of many F1-fanatics by complaining about the quieter new engines.

Read more: Silverstone owners cite F1 takeover in U-turn over sale of British Grand Prix home

"We need to go back to more simple engines, cheaper engines, louder, bring back the noise. Bring back the shriek and the thrill of hearing a Formula One engine operate, and we need to make sure the drivers are the stars, that the best driver ultimately wins."

"The key elements are the noise, because that gives the sensation of speed, and it's the quality of the racing. People want to see," – he pauses – "they don’t want anybody to get hurt, but they want to see the odd accident, they want to see drivers pushing to the limit, making mistakes."He cites the wheel-to-wheel racing of MotoGP as an example to F1, despite the bikes being around 20 seconds a lap slower.

A back-to-basics approach would have the dual benefits of helping smaller teams on tight budgets, while also making the spectacle more dramatic; F1 needs to "put on a better show", he says.

"I think the regulations as they are, that necessitate close to 900 people in the top teams... [working] on just one chassis is barmy – it's nuts, it's too much."

Wild goose chase

The Red Bull boss does not hold back, describing the regulatory changes as a "wild goose chase on irrelevant technology". The argument that F1 should lead the way in developing clean, futuristic engines is dismissed out of hand; technological developments of recent seasons are "fiercely protected so nobody ever really finds out about [them] all, or the automotive industry never benefit from [them] – but [they] probably detract from close wheel to wheel racing," he says, insisting that Formula E should be embraced as a way of encouraging greener racing cars, instead of F1.

F1's remit is different – it must compete more strongly for people's attention, Horner argues, in a world in which consumers have a rapidly increasingly choice in entertainment at their fingertips.

"You've got to move with the times and sometimes you’ve got to step back a little bit [and say] 'OK perhaps we've gone down a wrong path here – let's bring it back to the absolute fundamental elements of what is Formula One'."

The Liberty takeover prompted a dramatic change at the top of F1, with decades-long chief Bernie Ecclestone replaced as CEO by businessman Chase Carey. Horner refuses to criticise Ecclestone for the sport's problems in recent seasons ("what he's done is quite remarkable", "Formula One has been the success that it is because of Bernie Ecclestone") but welcomes a change of ownership from private equity to media conglomerate.

"Technology perhaps has less pertinence to them [Liberty], and unlike a venture capitalist they're not afraid to be making changes to make the sport what they want it to be. I think with a venture capitalist obviously their interest is buy cheap, sell high, do as little as possible in the meantime to incur costs, whereas I think what's interesting about the Liberty acquisition is their plan for the future, for the long term, and certainly the noises they’re making are very interesting."

Ross Brawn

He is enthusiastic about the appointment of former team boss Ross Brawn, who he believes can introduce regulations that enhance the drama of a grand prix.

F1 Grand Prix of Italy - Previews
Brawn (r) talks to former Red Bull driver Mark Webber (Source: Getty)

"Ross is poacher turned gatekeeper now, he knows the tricks of the trade as well as anybody else and is the guy ideally positioned to advise Liberty of what is the right type of regulation depending on what their criteria is for the future," he says.

"I remember suggesting him to the FIA over 12 months ago. Ross is a smart guy, a successful guy, extremely shrewd, and I think absolutely the right appointment for this role."

Social skills

Horner believes F1 must be simpler for the casual viewer and embrace modern channels through which fans watch sport.

"Formula One is now heading into a new era, a new world, the way people watch TV these days the way people interact with sport and content is changing," he says. People within the sport need to understand that "you're not going to be able to really monetise" all new channels. "Some of those you've got to view as 'this is an advert for the product', whether that's social media or some digital platforms."

His sentiment appears to be shared by Liberty. In testing this week, rules restricting the drivers’ use of social media appeared to have been relaxed – a move welcomed by Horner. F1's new commercial director said new guidelines would "unleash" Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, the three-time British world champion who has become motorsport's biggest global name.

As for Red Bull's own superstars, teenage sensation Max Verstappen and his always-impressive Aussie team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, what chance do they have of catching Hamilton in the upcoming season? Mercedes has been ominously quick in early testing sessions, yet both drivers remain optimistic.

Daniel and Max

Horner says the team’s relationship with their drivers is the "best we've ever had". Asked if he can sense another period of glory in the making, Horner is upbeat.

"The last time we'd assembled a team the regulation changed from 2008 into 2009 and allowed us to demonstrate the skill of the team with a clean sheet of paper, and we made good use of that going on to win four consecutive world championships," he says.

"Things on the engine side are concertinaing. The chassis side is again a blank sheet of paper. I've got every confidence in our people but again you can't take anything for granted. I've been around too long to have false expectations but our target is to be a real challenger to Mercedes this year."

Horner admits his team must be more competitive to ensure the continued backing of its global energy-drinks parent company beyond 2020. Last year's performance eclipsed Ferrari – but if Mr Red Bull wants to complete a second decade in his dream job, he and Newey may need to narrow the gap between their cars and Mercedes' silver arrows.

Red Bull's Sporting Empire
Other motorsports
Dakar Rally motorcycle winner Sam Sunderland races for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing while 2016 MotoGP winner Marc Marquez belongs to Red Bull-sponsored Repsol Honda. The company also sponsors supercar and rallycross teams, drivers across a range of disciplines and events such as motocross stunt competitions and snow truck races.
Football
RB Leipzig are riding high in their first season in the German top flight, while Major League Soccer franchise New York Red Bulls, Austrian champions FC Red Bull Salzburg, their feeder club FC Liefering and Brazilian lower league side Red Bull Brasil are all part of the stable.
Ice Hockey

EHC Red Bull Munchen, the German champions, and EC Red Bull Salzburg, title-winners seven times in the last decade, share the same owners and have similar logos.

Watersports
Red Bull is represented on the seas by Red Bull Extreme Sailing and as sponsor of the Youth America’s Cup. Windsurfers, wakeboarders and surfers also benefit from endorsements.
Snowsports
Hosts freestyle skiing event Red Bull PlayStreets and downhill ice skating race Red Bull Crashed Ice and is also represented by top skiers and snowboarders.
Extreme sports
Leading BMX bikers and skateboarders, wingsuit flyers and base jumpers have endorsements with Red Bull. Felix Baumgartner parachuted to Earth from space in 2012 as part of the Red Bull Stratos project.

Related articles