Tension in F1 reaching boiling point as problems swirl at Red Bull and the FIA

Sam Cooper
Christian Horner and Mohammed Ben Sulayem

Christian Horner and Mohammed Ben Sulayem are both in the limelight for the wrong reasons.

It is hard to remember a time when the F1 paddock was so on edge. A new season has just started and yet the talk has been of everything but.

The mother of all off-seasons ended when the lights went out in Bahrain but the aftershock is still rippling through the sport.

Andretti being rejected by FOM seems a distant memory, as does Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc signing new deals. Even Lewis Hamilton’s announcement of his move to Ferrari seems like it took place years ago.

Since those announcements, a tornado has ripped through the sport’s champions and appears capable of pulling apart an era-defining outfit. In 2023, Red Bull were untouchable and while their car still may be, the team that put it together is threatening to collapse.

The investigation into Christian Horner has been concluded for nearly a week now but the atmosphere is no less volatile than it was when questions still needed answering. Fingers are beginning to be pointed after an anonymous leak of messages pertaining to be from Horner, an accusation he denies, and has only served to pour some more of F1’s sustainable fuel on the fire.

Until Sunday, Red Bull were united, at least publicly. While neither Helmut Marko’s or Max Verstappen’s statements were ringing endorsements for Horner, they were at least not direct attacks. That changed on Sunday.

Jos Verstappen has been known to put his family above that of Red Bull, most notably criticising the team’s strategy at the Monaco 2022 race despite them winning because Max finished third, but his comments to the Daily Mail in the wake of Bahrain were another step entirely.

The 52-year-old suggested Red Bull would “explode” if Horner remained his post and even went on to say the team principal was “playing the victim, when he is the one causing the problems.”

The comments turned the pressure up another notch. While some have criticised Jos, with the British newspaper the i describing him as a “deranged fool”, it appeared to be floodgates opening.

Soon after, F1-Insider.com revealed Max Verstappen had a clause in his contract that allowed him to walk away from Red Bull should Marko leave. The 80-year-old also did little to help matters by simply stating he would not stand in Verstappen’s way should he choose to depart.

And it seems every passing day, battle lines are being drawn and then redrawn within the Red Bull camp. The general consensus is that Horner has majority owner Chalerm Yoovidhya on his side but the Austrian camp itself is much more hesitant. Marko and Adrian Newey have also been reported as those of the view that Horner should leave.

Speaking to Sky Sports after the Bahrain victory, Horner was confident he would stay in his job for the upcoming Saudi race but his position is more vulnerable than it has ever been before.

Jos Verstappen will stay away from the paddock, he was already due to miss Saudi for a race of his own but has suggested he will not be back until May, but Horner will know he still has enemies within the camp.

It seems an untenable situation for the team. One that has to be sorted before it spirals even more out of control.

But at the centre of this, away from team politics, there should be sympathy for the female colleague who, unlike many, had the courage to stand up and complain about her male higher ups. Since then, the legitimate concern has been morphed into a political object, used by those seeking to shamefully claw some more power for themselves.

FIA president on the brink after another alleged indiscretion

It is not just Horner who is in the crosshairs, for FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem is facing more allegations.

A report by the BBC claims an official complaint was made regarding the actions of the 62-year-old after he was alleged to have interfered with a race result in 2023.

If true, it is not the first offence of Ben Sulayem’s troubled tenure.

Since ascending to the post in December 2021, Ben Sulayem has rubbed almost every key party up the wrong way. In the wake of Abu Dhabi 2021, the rules did need looking at but Ben Sulayem’s iron fist approach angered in particular the likes of Lewis Hamiton who found himself being targeted for wearing jewellery. Meanwhile Kevin Mganussen, who wears his wedding ring, passed by without mention.

Ben Sulayem began 2023 by angering commercial rights holders Liberty Media after he described a Saudi-backed bid for the sport as “inflated.” That resulted in him receiving a strongly-worded letter reminding Ben Sulayem of who controls what in F1 and describing his comments as “unacceptable.”

A few weeks later and misogynistic remarks that were published 20 years ago on his personal website resurfaced and said he does not “like women who think they are more intelligent than men, because they are not in truth.”

Ben Sulayem was forced to take a step back from F1 proceedings with an unnamed team principal reportedly telling the BBC that the FIA president “had to go.”

The heat died down until the FIA was again in the headlines for an ill-advised investigation into the relationship between Toto and Susie Wolff. The probe reportedly came following an article published in one of the least respected and least trustworthy publications in the whole of F1 media. Yet it was deemed good enough for the FIA.

Regardless of whether it came from Ben Sulayem, it was his organisation that decided this was worth looking into and the affair came to an end just 48 hours after it started, with far more damage done to the FIA than the Wolffs.

So, Ben Sulayem was already on thin ice. FIA presidencies have a term of four years and yet it is looking more and more unlikely the current incumbent will complete his.

The FIA compliance office is expected to take four to six weeks to find a result but a negative one would surely mean the end for Ben Sulayem.

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