Christian Horner interview: ‘Red Bull put Formula 1 back on the map last year’
The dust is still settling on last year’s rancorous Formula 1 season as a new one is about to begin in Bahrain this weekend but Oracle Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner is keen to put the acrimony with Mercedes and opposite number Toto Wolff behind him. Well, mostly.
Three months on from a hugely controversial finale to the 2021 season, which saw Red Bull’s Max Verstappen pip bitter title rival Lewis Hamilton and end Mercedes’ seven-year stranglehold on the drivers’ championship on the final lap in Abu Dhabi, Horner is largely magnanimous about the team likely to be the biggest threat to their crown in 2022.
But on the eve of the first grand prix of the year the Englishman, 48, Red Bull Racing’s team principal and chief executive, can’t help peppering his assessment of Mercedes with the odd pointed remark – and stops short of extending his praise to Wolff, the Jurgen Klopp to Horner’s Pep Guardiola.
“They’re competitors and they’ve dominated the sport for so long. We’ve been the first team that has stood up and beaten them. And you can see they don’t like being beaten. So that’s been rewarding in itself,” he tells City A.M.
“It energises everyone in the team. We have huge respect for Lewis, for Mercedes. I’m sure it’ll be another competitive season. Hopefully less contentious, this one.
“I’d rather we had a car that was half a second faster than the rest of the field and life would be a little easier. But it’s a competitive business. They’re massive opponents. And Red Bull Racing – as a subsidiary of an energy drinks manufacturer – it doesn’t sit very well taking on and beating manufacturers, so you can understand why perhaps that gets to them a little.”
Horner on Mercedes’ new car, budget caps and Michael Masi
F1 has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years but the simmering rivalries between Red Bull and Verstappen, Horner and Wolff and Verstappen and Hamilton took that to new levels last season and made grands prix appointment viewing again even for non-petrolheads for the first time in decades.
That rivalry bubbled to the surface again in Bahrain last week when teams took part in their final pre-season test and Mercedes raised eyebrows with an innovative chassis. Horner calls it an “interesting interpretation” of new design rules for 2022 but expects the regulatory shake-up, which also includes a freeze on engine developments, to make racing closer than ever.
Horner says capping team budgets at $145m, falling to $140m this year, has improved efficiency but that it would be better to stick to one figure – “it is unhealthy to have a Sword of Damocles hanging over a team” – and not one too low: “I don’t think we want a communist state where everybody has exactly the same budget and the same looking cars.”
The other major change, the removal of Australian Michael Masi as race director, stems from the acrimonious fallout from his handling of the 2021 season finale. “It did feel somewhat harsh on Michael to pick up the can for it all,” says Horner. On whether he has faith in F1’s new set-up, which will remove the direct line between teams and race directors, he says: “Time will tell.”
The drama of last season provoked further debate about whether F1, which has tapped the US market and younger demographics via the smash-hit Netflix docu-series Drive to Survive, has struck the right balance between sport and entertainment. “I think so,” says Horner. “At the end of the day, sport has to be entertaining otherwise people wouldn’t watch it.”
Red Bull boss happy Hamilton is back to rival Verstappen
More than that, he says, the team deserve credit for their part in reviving interest in the sport. “Red Bull put Formula 1 back on the map last year, because without that title fight, it would’ve been another walkover by Lewis, he’d have won it by the summer break, it would’ve been a boring championship,” says Horner.
“The competition, with things like the Netflix series that are bringing in a new audience, I think has increased the appeal of Formula 1 significantly and we’re seeing that in new partners joining the team, and with races already being sold out in March at pretty much every venue that we go to this year.”
That increased interest in F1 allied to Verstappen’s title win has already paid dividends in the form of a title sponsorship with US tech giant Oracle worth more than £100m per year and another bumper commercial tie-up with cryptocurrency platform Bybit. The extra cash has helped to secure the champion on a contract, reported to be worth £40m a year, until 2028.
“It’s a statement of intent,” says Horner. “It shows the commitment that Max has to the programme and it shows the programme that Red Bull has for Max. It’s great to get it done to avoid all that speculation during the course of the season. I committed long-term to the team pre-Christmas, Max has done so pre-season and it’s great to have that stability and continuity.”
He is happy that Hamilton has returned to fight for a record eighth drivers’ crown, having flirted with walking away over last year’s controversy. “It’s good for Formula 1. He’s a phenomenal competitor and it made that championship even more valuable beating him last year because he’s such a successful and dominant driver. It’s great that he’s back.”
On 17 years in F1, big characters and retaining No1 billing
Horner rates beating Hamilton and Mercedes as “the biggest achievement we’ve had”, ahead even of Red Bull’s first of four consecutive title wins with Sebastian Vettel in 2010. He says it brings confidence rather than pressure but plays down suggestions that it could herald another dynasty of the type that have defined F1 in the 21st century.
“I would dearly hope so but I think the field is so competitive that that’s unlikely to be the case,” he says. “We’re determined to defend the title as hard as we can and to retain the No1 on the car but expect opposition not just from Mercedes this year but also Ferrari and McLaren look competitive, so it’s going to be interesting.”
Horner has seen much change since arriving in F1 in 2005 but, he prepares for his 18th season to start on Sunday, shows no signs of running out of gas himself. “When I first came in the characters were very different. Bernie Ecclestone was running the sport and big characters like Ron Dennis, Flavio Briatore, Jean Todt and Frank Williams were running the teams,” he says.
“The faces are a bit different now but that competitive spirit is still very much there. I still love the racing and the competition and that’s what motivates me. I think last year was probably the best Formula 1 has had in 40 years so it’s got a lot to live up to this year, but with new cars and new regulations, it’s going to be fascinating to see how it unfolds.”