How Much Will Red Bull Racing Endure To Stand By Christian Horner?

The internal investigation of allegations of misconduct by Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner concluded on Feb. 28 with a statement from the team’s parent company, announcing approximately nothing. Horner was accused by a fellow Red Bull Racing employee earlier in the winter of what has been ambiguously reported as controlling and inappropriate behavior, and Red Bull contracted an independent party to conduct what became a weeks-long investigation. The statement exonerating Horner ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix says that the grievance had been “dismissed” after a “fair, rigorous, and impartial” investigation; in a maneuver that will be familiar to anyone who followed the NFL’s quote-unquote independent investigation into the toxic workplace environment of Dan Snyder’s Washington Football Team, Red Bull has declined to share any details at all about the nature of the investigation or anything it learned, citing the privacy of those involved.

If Red Bull’s various muckety-mucks hoped that a clipped statement and a dominant race weekend would close this matter, whew, they sure misjudged the lay of the land. For starters, Red Bull’s opsec appears to have been run by amateurs: Approximately 24 hours after Red Bull issued its vague statement of exoneration, a pair of anonymous email addresses sent a digital dossier containing what is purported to be evidence from Red Bull’s investigation to 149 members of the media, racing officials and others. The files reportedly included a batch of messages that may support the allegations made against Horner. The recipients of this dump include members of the media, FIA and F1 higher-ups, various team principals, and Jos Verstappen, the loud-mouthed father of Max Verstappen, who is the ascendant driver in the sport and Red Bull’s most important employee and most prominent spokesperson.

At the Bahrain Grand Prix over the weekend, some of Horner’s more visible counterparts around the F1 paddock were already grumbling about the opacity of Red Bull’s investigation. Just hours before the anonymous document dump, McLaren CEO Zak Brown called for FIA scrutiny of Red Bull’s process, and Toto Wolff, CEO of the Mercedes team and a longtime rival of Horner’s, likened Red Bull’s statement to a vague brush-off. “There is a lady in an organization that has spoken to HR and said there is an issue,” said Wolff during a team principals’ press conference Thursday. “It was investigated and yesterday the sport has received a message: ‘It’s all fine, we’ve looked at it.’ I believe that with the aspirations of a global sport, on such critical topics, it needs more transparency, and I wonder what the sport’s position is.”

Jos Verstappen is taking a more direct approach. Cameras caught Jos and Horner shouting at each other near Horner’s office in the Red Bull motorhome ahead of the grand prix; Saturday, hours after his son made a light snack of the field at the first race of the 2024 season, Jos explicitly called upon Horner to resign his position atop Red Bull Racing, a position Horner has held since 2005. “There is tension here while he remains in position,” said the elder Verstappen, to the Daily Mail. “The team is in danger of being torn apart. It can’t go on the way it is. It will explode. He is playing the victim, when he is the one causing the problems.”

Jos was reportedly spotted all weekend long being chummy with Wolff, to the point that Wolff was eventually asked outright by reporters if he could see Max jumping to Mercedes after this season, filling the seat that will be vacated by the Ferrari-bound Lewis Hamilton. Wolff, who is certainly not a moron, didn’t rule anything out. Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, meanwhile, reported Sunday that Max Verstappen refused a request, made by FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem, to offer public support to Horner. Because this sport is normal as hell, Sulayem is also being investigated after a whistleblower accused him of attempting to interfere on Aston Martin’s behalf to overturn a penalty issued to Fernando Alonso in the 2023 Saudi Arabia Grand Prix. The timing on that is certainly interesting.

We’re not done! The cover story of the March 2024 issue of trade publication BusinessF1 Magazine is described as a detailed 19-page report on the crisis at Red Bull, including what the Daily Mail describes as a series of new allegations against Horner. The lid had otherwise been kept tight on details of both the initial complaint and the contents of the leaked dossier; as for the dossier, possibly no document in history has ever had more conjugations of the word “allege” used to describe the fact of it having been distributed. For one thing, due to issues of provenance no one was prepared to say for sure whether what is in the dossier is legitimate; for another, laws across the pond make it so that you can sue the bejesus out of anyone who isn’t maximally careful with alleged allegations (allegedly). And, indeed, Horner—who isn’t shy about threatening to sue people who are mean to him—issued a letter soon after the dossier was distributed threatening to sue anyone who published any of its contents, per the The Telegraph. The Telegraph, while avoiding any detailed description of the messages in the dossier, did refer to them as “flirty and smutty.”

I have not seen this BusinessF1 Magazine report—where would I even find a copy of this damn magazine—but suffice to say the attention on Horner and Red Bull’s investigation is increasing, along with pressure on the FIA and F1 to take matters in hand. This is precisely the opposite of what Red Bull hoped to accomplish over the weekend. Horner is being defiant about his position at Red Bull, declaring Saturday that he is “100 percent” confident that he’ll keep his gig. “I’ve always been entirely confident that I would be here. And my focus is on the season ahead and the races we have ahead. What people choose to write is up to them.” While I’m sure Horner’s bosses at Red Bull would prefer the absolute minimum disruption to their all-devouring racing program, it seems, from the outside at least, like matters are coming to a head. Jos wants Horner out and is at least willing to create the perception that he could yank Max away to Mercedes; an undying news cycle is dragging more and more asses into the jackpot; Red Bull’s rivals smell blood; the vultures are circling. If it comes down to a choice between the most dominant driver in the sport and the little nerdy guy who coos “well done, mate” into his earpiece after another flawless race, it’s really not much of a choice at all.

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