until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Horner hints at calling Verstappen's bluff if he wants to leave

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
6 min read

Christian Horner has refused to rule out Max Verstappen leaving Red Bull and declared “no individual is bigger than the team”, in a first hint that the embattled team principal might eventually call the world champion’s bluff.

Juxtaposed with Red Bull’s serene start to 2024 on-track with consecutive one-two finishes led by Verstappen is a turbulent off-track saga that took a fresh twist in Saudi Arabia when Verstappen warned of consequences should his mentor Helmut Marko leave.

The catalyst was a matter involving long-serving special adviser Marko, who Verstappen is very close to, that could yet lead to Marko’s exit despite him saying he’ll continue for now.

Marko’s position at Red Bull being called into question went down extremely badly with Verstappen. When he was asked about it on Friday after qualifying in Jeddah, Verstappen strongly indicated he would consider his own future if Marko were to leave and reiterated that multiple times in a lengthy answer and in various TV interviews afterwards.

He described his loyalty to Marko as “very big”, said that he has always made it clear Marko is an “important part in my decision making”, and even went as far as declaring “Helmut has to stay”.

Though Marko says he is staying for now, the significance of this Verstappen intervention is huge. It is the first time he has indicated his place at Red Bull could be influenced by a matter involving someone else and contrasted sharply with the qualified comments Max has made around questions about Horner’s leadership.

“You can never say never,” Horner said when asked after the race about the threat of losing Verstappen.

“If a driver doesn’t want to be somewhere then they’ll go somewhere else.

“But I can’t see any reason why anybody would want to step out of this team.

“I think he’s got great support around him and he’s doing a wonderful job with a great car.”

Verstappen is under contract with Red Bull until the end of 2028. That deal is bound to have exit clauses but in any case, Red Bull has to play a part in ensuring he wants to stick around, rather than just waiting to see if he does.

The wider political play within Red Bull was of little interest to Verstappen, outwardly at least, until Marko got dragged into it. Now the warring factions are meddling with his situation so how that gets resolved is relevant.

Verstappen said after winning in Jeddah that what matters is “we keep the peace” but even if we give Red Bull the benefit of the doubt that the Saudi weekend ended with a truce of some kind it feels like a suspension of the hostilities at best. Which is not the foundation for a long-term solution.

Horner stated after the race that his relationship with Marko is not an issue - though admitted he’s “always outspoken, but that’s Helmut”. He also claimed that both Mintzlaff and another Red Bull executive Franz Watzlawick, who was also in Jeddah, have been “very supportive.

“I’m aware of all the noise but it hasn’t distracted the team from the job,” Horner said.

“We are one team. There’s speculation about Helmut now. Helmut doesn’t work for me, he doesn’t work for Red Bull Racing, he works for Red Bull GmbH.

“But I think you can see there’s a very clear route that is looking forward and wanting to continue this incredible winning streak that we’ve been on.”

Horner also insists his relationship with Verstappen is fine and there is no tension inside the team.

But in response to Verstappen suggesting he’d leave if Marko did, Horner told Sky Sports F1 “no individual is bigger than the team”, and anybody who doesn’t want to be at Red Bull can’t be forced to stay - including Verstappen.

“It’s like anything in life, you can’t force somebody to be somewhere just because of a piece of paper,” said Horner.

“If somebody didn’t want to be at this team, then we’re not going to force somebody against their will to be here. And that applies whether it’s a machine operator or a designer or somebody in one of the support functions. That runs through the business.

“Being involved in a team like this involves commitment and passion. And Max has that. We’ve seen that.

“He’s been here since he was 18 years of age. And I have no doubt of his commitment and passion going forward.

“But that’s the way it is.”

It’s packaged a lot of praise and positive sentiment, and what may sound like a generic ‘if someone wants to leave they can’, but this was a pointed remark. He could have defaulted to a generic line about Verstappen being under contract until 2028 and he chose not to. And Horner’s always deliberate with his wording.

This could be a first tentative step towards calling Verstappen’s bluff, especially as Horner reckons 16 drivers want a Red Bull seat for 2025 already.

Every one of Verstappen’s 56 wins has come with Red Bull Racing. Every one of his starts made across its two teams. Every one of his three titles, the extreme likelihood he’ll get a fourth this year, the premature (but pretty realistic) prospect there will be a chance of at least a fifth in 2025 – all thanks to Red Bull machinery.

Might it be possible that Red Bull, or at least Horner, actually feels that Verstappen needs the team more than the team needs him – and therefore the risk of Verstappen walking is one worth taking?

The immediate downside of losing Verstappen is obvious – arguably the best driver in F1 right now would leave, weakening Red Bull instantly and strengthening a rival should he stay on the grid somewhere else.

What are the upsides? Simply strengthening Horner’s position of power is one possible incentive for him. And one way or another, it may help ease a significant amount of tension. Plus, it would free up a significant amount of money, given Verstappen’s on a lucrative salary.

And yet…it would be a bold, bold gambit for Red Bull and Horner to believe they could withstand losing a driver of Verstappen’s calibre, especially as there could be knock-on effects.

What do senior technical figures like Adrian Newey and Pierre Wache make of all this? One suggestion we have heard is that Newey’s not particularly impressed and certainly not firmly in Horner’s corner.

It was then reported by reputed German publication Auto Motor und Sport during the weekend that Horner views success at Red Bull as possible with the likes of Verstappen or Newey, as long as he is still in charge.

If Red Bull loses the linchpins of this era of dominance it would be a risky, real-world test of Horner’s theory nobody is bigger than the team.

What Verstappen makes of that is unknown but his position on Marko is crystal clear. When asked about Marko’s contribution specifically, Horner said: “Everybody has a role to play, no matter what that role is.

“This team’s been incredibly successful. It’s had tremendous stability for a long period of time and that’s been one of the keys to our success.”

And yet, Marko walking away eventually, and the Verstappens plotting a sensational move elsewhere in retaliation, seems like a less farfetched prospect now.

Maybe, so does Red Bull - or Horner - actually being willing to let that happen.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks