Christian Horner investigation distracts F1 attention ahead of Bahrain Grand Prix

Thomas Maher
2023 Bahrain GP race start.

The 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix kicks off this weekend's championship, but F1's attention is distracted by Red Bull's ongoing Christian Horner investigation.

After a low key but intriguing three-day test last week, the F1 2024 World Championship kicks off this weekend with the Bahrain Grand Prix.

A gruelling 24-race calendar awaits over the next nine-and-a-half months, with the first race taking place this weekend at Bahrain’s International Circuit, half an hour from the capital city of Manama.

The night race will consist of 57 laps of the desert circuit and, unusually, takes place on Saturday night – the reason for this being scheduling to account for Ramadan in the region. With Ramadan beginning on March 10th, the Jeddah race has been moved to Saturday night, meaning Bahrain’s race has to be moved back a day in sympathy to ensure a seven-day separation.

A dramatic weekend awaits for Red Bull

After a winter filled with juicy news storylines, the confirmation earlier this month that Red Bull GmbH – the parent company of Red Bull Racing – had placed Christian Horner under investigation for undisclosed allegations related to his behaviour as team boss has cast a pall over the build-up to the season.

Unimaginably, just a few days out from the season opener, it’s not yet known for sure who will be in charge of the Red Bull team as they begin their title defence.

Horner was in place for the team’s car launch in Milton Keynes, as well as on the ground for the three-day test last week, but is back in the UK while awaiting his fate.

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PlanetF1.com understands it could be Thursday, the day of the two practice sessions for the weekend, in which Red Bull GmbH reveals the verdict of the Horner investigation that could define the team’s entire future – Horner’s importance in creating and maintaining the team’s cohesiveness can’t be underestimated.

Whether or not to feel sorry for Horner’s predicament will come down to how much information GmbH is willing to reveal about what the team boss has apparently done – if he has done anything in the first place. Immorality and illegality, if either are applicable, are very different.

With a suitcase packed for the season opener in Bahrain in one hand, and a cardboard box to empty out his desk in Milton Keynes in the other, Horner’s entire F1 career – and the immediate future of Red Bull’s F1 efforts – couldn’t be any more unclear as the race approaches.

In better news for Red Bull is the fact that, despite hinting over the winter at taking a conservative approach with the RB20, the team has shown up with a daring design that sends the squad down a new development path for this season.

Such risk-taking almost seems unnecessary but, having had months of preparation while understanding the direction many of their rivals would adopt for 2024, Red Bull looks to have played a blinder.

The RB20 looked sublime during testing and, while Ferrari set the fastest times of the test, there was no sense that Red Bull had ever chased a glory time in the final hours.

Certainly, there’s no sense of unease surrounding Red Bull – no apparent uncertainty that the RB20 is going to do something unusual when put on track for a race. The confidence radiated by Max Verstappen’s race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase on day one, turning to gleefully laugh with a colleague as the Dutch driver popped in a jaw-dropping time at that point, said it all.

Other teams firmly believe Red Bull are possibly even further ahead than they were in 2023 – perhaps as much as a second a lap, according to some gobsmacked personnel willing to talk times in the paddock.

Ferrari also looks good coming into the new season, but perhaps not quite yet at the level to be able to challenge outright for victories – it’s Mercedes and Aston Martin with the Scuderia in a tight group in which operational sharpness, perhaps more than technical, could make the defining differences in the early part of the year.

With the top four teams, for Bahrain at least, widely accepted as being the aforementioned, the next question is whether or not McLaren or RB are able to join that fight or whether they’ll be engaged in their own battle in the midfield.

Neither team looks particularly bad, as such, although the MCL38 did struggle with mid-corner understeer frequently throughout the three-day test. It’s Team RB, formerly AlphaTauri, who appears to have made the biggest jump of the off-season – just how much of a jump that is will be evident in a few days.

The battle of the back of the grid is therefore Haas, Stake (formerly Alfa Romeo/Sauber), Williams, and… Alpine. The Enstone-based squad has gone for a completely new direction with their A524 for the final two years of the current regulations and, by all accounts, it hasn’t been the best of starts.

But while a bad start is predicted for Enstone – perhaps even to the point of not escaping Q1 – the new concept direction could yield some low-hanging fruit and a higher development ceiling than had the team stuck with their previous philosophy.

Of course, the same can be said for most of the expected back-of-the-grid teams – conceptual changes across the board that will require time and effort to refine and unlock, but stand to see plenty of time gain as the teams become more familiar with their new machines.

With the regulations remaining stable over the winter, the expectation then is that 2024 will simply be a slight refresh of ’23.

Expect the top teams to remain the top teams, with only tweaks in terms of the pecking order – such as McLaren starting the year further back than where they ended ’23, RB having taken a step forward, and Alpine a step back.

But who can stop Max Verstappen and Red Bull this year?

As it stands, it appears the biggest threat could be from itself, if inner turmoil destabilises the team. It won’t happen immediately, regardless of whether Horner goes or stays.

But if Horner does end up being removed, the peak of the team’s cycle of dominance may have already come and gone.

And even if Horner stays, will he operate with the same passion and love for the team that he’s had over the last 20 years, having been put through the wringer of public humiliation over the past few weeks?

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