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Formula 1

How Red Bull handled Horner controversy at its launch

by Scott Mitchell-Malm, Edd Straw
5 min read

Red Bull revealed its 2024 Formula 1 car amid the ongoing controversy surrounding team boss Christian Horner, who made his first public appearance since Red Bull’s parent company launched an “independent investigation” into allegations about his conduct at the team's launch.

That investigation was the elephant in the room at Red Bull’s big-effort, well-organised launch event at its Milton Keynes headquarters, put on to celebrate the team’s 20th season in F1.

In isolation, the attendees shouldn’t be surprising: drivers Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez were joined by team principal Horner on stage to talk through the team’s two decades, its 2023 success, and the work completed ahead of the new season with its RB20.

It made things out to be business as usual. Except it isn’t. Horner’s presence was a distraction, and a big talking point.

The investigation started last week and will hopefully be resolved one way or another by the time the season begins in Bahrain in a fortnight, but there’s a chance it will linger into the season. It is too complex and serious to rush just so that it can line up conveniently with an F1 schedule.

So as Horner continues in his team principal and CEO role in the interim, there he was at the launch, talking about Red Bull’s “phenomenal” history and how the future is “very bright”.

He had media sessions and TV interviews around the launch, albeit with a small catch: Red Bull said no questions would be allowed about the investigation.

It wasn’t a total gag order so some questions could be slipped in more generally about the situation Horner and Red Bull are facing, and Horner did address the fact the investigation is happening.

“There is an investigation that I’m obviously complying and working with fully,” he said.

And he went on to admit there has “inevitably been a distraction”, but most of the time was insisting “it has been business as normal”.

It’s a sensitive matter that has trapped the F1 team somewhat, because it has to continue as if everything’s normal. But this is not a normal situation.

The view from the ground

Edd Straw

The ongoing investigation into Christian Horner was the elephant in the room at the Red Bull launch. But while that couldn't help but overshadow the launch, it certainly didn't mean the team principal became a shadowy figure relegated to the sidelines.

In fact, Horner was front and centre throughout. He appeared in the VTs, his part in the history of Red Bull Racing was emphasised, and he was on stage for most of the presentation and the unveiling of the car. Clearly, there was an attempt to convey the message that this was, as Horner stressed, business as usual and that Horner is still very much in charge.

Inevitably, questions from the media about the investigation were not permitted. That's as it should be because what matters is that this process is followed rigorously and the correct outcome reached, so it would be prejudicial for anything to be said even though currently it's a Red Bull internal process rather than a legal one.

However, Horner did field questions about any impact on the team, inevitably shrugging off any concerns. Other than his concession it had been a distraction for him, no ground was yielded when it came to a negative effect on the team. Verstappen even talked through his media handler saying he wouldn't answer a question about his relationship with Horner, albeit only to say, effectively, it's unchanged.

While this might all sound predictable, as of course nobody was going to admit there was any effect, Red Bull could easily have handled this by being less forthcoming, hiding even.

It went to the effort to launch a genuine car with an event attended by plenty of media in Milton Keynes, which is actually far more thorough than has been on offer in recent years. Red Bull could easily have chucked out a few not-very-illuminating renders of the car, issued a press release and made everyone wait until Bahrain.

That in itself tells us nothing about the investigation or potential outcome, but it does show how Horner intends to conduct himself publicly until whatever happens, happens.

Will this destabilise Red Bull?

The Red Bull RB20 should be the class of the field unless Red Bull has got over-confident and ended up down a blind development alley.

Nothing that’s happened so far should have taken Red Bull’s eye off the ball with the RB20 and Horner insisted the team is in “good shape” and “the only thing that focuses everybody’s attention is the car”.

But any cracks that start to emerge in the team's foundations could make things more complicated. And the Horner saga means Red Bull does face a potentially huge destabiliser on the eve of the season.

Horner has led Red Bull Racing since it was created from Red Bull’s takeover of Jaguar ahead of the 2005 season, so is an F1 mainstay and one of the most influential and recognisable figures in the paddock.

That’s why the allegations and the fact Red Bull is taking them so seriously have rocked F1, and sparked quite wild speculation.

There are suggestions he may not survive in his role. Talk has rumbled on for a while of a power struggle going on in the background with the head office in Red Bull since founder Dietrich Mateschitz died and ex-Red Bull Leipzig CEO Oliver Mintzlaff became a more prominent figure in the company, with his remit including the F1 programme.

There are even claims of a rift with the Verstappen camp - though Horner joined Verstappen in playing this down. Verstappen's exact words were that his and Horner's relationship is “like always”.

And Horner described Red Bull as “very united” and “one team”, including the shareholders in that.

The launch proved that it’s easy to say it’s business as usual for Red Bull. But will it be easy for that to be the reality?

We need to wait for the investigation to conclude. That might well be after pre-season testing and, who knows, maybe even after the first race.

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