Would a Christian Horner departure spell the end for Red Bull’s dominant empire?

Thomas Maher
Red Bull's Christian Horner at the 2023 Monaco Grand Prix.

Might Red Bull's success crumble away if Christian Horner is replaced?

Should Christian Horner fall on his sword and lose his job at Red Bull, could it be the toppling of an empire in the long run?

Earlier this week, Red Bull GmbH (the parent company that owns Red Bull Racing) confirmed Christian Horner is under investigation for… something. What that something is hasn’t been confirmed, but it’s serious.

“After being made aware of certain recent allegations, the company launched an independent investigation,” Red Bull confirmed to PlanetF1.com. “This process, which is already underway, is being carried out by an external specialist barrister. The company takes these matters extremely seriously and the investigation will be completed as soon as practically possible. It would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.”

What’s next for Christian Horner and Red Bull?

Hard facts relating to whatever is going on with Horner and Red Bull are hard to come by. Officially, neither Red Bull Racing nor GmbH will comment on the situation and what Horner is alleged to have done.

There are plenty of rumours out there as to what may have occurred or what the investigation is centering on, but PlanetF1.com understands it is related to Horner’s management style and approach.

To that end, Friday is the day the next steps will be taken. A hearing will take place on Friday, February 9th, to hear from all concerned parties and establish whether Horner’s position is tenable.

With Red Bull’s team launch and celebratory RB20 anniversary reveal coming up on February 15th, it’s a huge bombshell to hit the team at a most inopportune moment. Rather than going into the new season full of joie de vivre and appearing as the dominant force they’ve been in recent years, having question marks raised over Horner’s job and character is hardly the start to the year Red Bull would have wanted.

Sticking to the facts, Horner has denied the allegations of whatever exactly it is he’s accused of, but the threat to his career and leadership very much hangs in the balance going into the weekend.

Red Bull placed in awkward position if Christian Horner isn’t exonerated

Over the past 20 years, there’s no doubting the incredible talent that Horner has shown in creating a behemoth Formula 1 entity. Taking over from the calamitous Jaguar entry at the tail end of 2004, Horner set about moulding Red Bull Racing in his image – taking up the challenge which had been laid down to him by the late Dietrich Mateschitz.

The moulding took a while to get off the ground, with the upward momentum really kicking into gear after convincing Adrian Newey to jump ship from McLaren to join Red Bull.

Just two years later, Red Bull became Grand Prix winners and launched their first title attack – succeeding a year later as Sebastian Vettel set off on a four-year dominant streak that didn’t end until a revolutionary power unit regulation change scuppered Red Bull’s competitiveness.

The next half decade proved tortuous for Red Bull who, despite usually having a very competitive car, were let down by a less powerful engine offering – resulting in Horner, Helmut Marko, and Franz Tost taking the gamble of switching to Honda, first with Toro Rosso in 2018 before Red Bull Racing did the same a year later.

Red Bull promptly made work what McLaren couldn’t over the previous four years, and made Honda winners the same season their partnership began. The winning trickle picked up apace before 2021’s RB16B returned Red Bull to the top – a position they have been unthreatened in ever since.

With Horner merely an employee of Red Bull, rather than being a shareholder in the team he’s created, it’s thus quite easy for Red Bull to cut ties with him, should they see fit to do so.

But the big question is whether or not Red Bull is eager to do so. Rumours have abounded in recent months about an internal power struggle within Red Bull since the death of Mateschitz, with Horner allegedly angling for more power and control within the organisation he’s helped turn into such a success.

These rumours became particularly pronounced during the latter half of 2023, with surface-level tensions between Horner and Marko hinting as to what may be going on behind closed doors.

If Red Bull wants Horner out, then this particular incident could spell the end for him with the organisation – but would that be beneficial for Red Bull?

While Horner tends to prove a divisive ‘love him or hate him’ character due to his willingness to get down and dirty in the media, particularly when it comes to poking at awkward situations with rival team bosses, his track record simply cannot be argued with.

With seven drivers’ championships and six constructors’ titles in less than 20 years, Horner has been the architect behind it all – overseeing them from their early days trying to clean up Jaguar’s mess to the heady days of 2023, the most dominant season by any F1 team ever, in the entire history of the sport.

On the performance side, then, Horner’s talents and value can’t be disputed. But, if his behaviour is proven to have been problematic to the point of making his position untenable, what option does Red Bull have?

Should Horner be ousted from his role, what does it mean for Red Bull in the long run? After all, their competitiveness won’t simply fall off a cliff immediately, but Horner has proven extremely canny at creating a stable work environment over the years – stability that has led to incredible success.

There’s also the rumours that Newey, so critical a component in Red Bull’s success, is Horner-aligned – perhaps an unsurprising suggestion given how Newey has been given free rein to try out different challenges within Red Bull, including the upcoming RB17 hypercar.

Could it be that, if Christian is removed, Adrian could up and leave also – perhaps Italy might look quite appealing, given the arrival of Lewis Hamilton at Ferrari?

Even if the team could survive Horner’s departure without any instant drop-off in form, would anyone be so brave as to make the same claim about a Newey departure?

It’s also not inconceivable to think that rival teams have already been in contact with Newey with eye-watering offers to switch sides if he were to follow an axed Horner out the door.

It’s a similar situation to one the BBC found themselves in a few years ago, when Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson punched an assistant, Oisin Tymon, following a long, tiring day of filming. The “fracas” led to BBC having to fire Clarkson, despite him and Tymon patching things up (with some help via a financial settlement).

BBC couldn’t turn a blind eye to Clarkson’s behaviour, despite Clarkson being so crucial to the success of Top Gear as one of their biggest and most lucrative properties.

But there was only one big loser from the entire situation, and that was the BBC. Despite persevering with the show with a variety of prominent celebrity hosts and journalists, Top Gear was cancelled just three months ago after being given the last rites.

Clarkson, on the other hand, had the loyalty of Richard Hammond and James May and, as a trio, signed a $250 million deal with Amazon to spawn the Grand Tour and some lucrative solo projects – the clear winner of the situation as the BBC quickly foundered.

So, with Horner’s meeting with Red Bull set for Friday, there are plenty of questions to be answered over the coming days.

Will Horner still be in charge of Red Bull by launch day next Thursday? Have Red Bull been put in the unenviable position of having to fire Horner for his alleged behaviour, rather than based on performance? Or does this provide Red Bull with an opportunity to cut ties with Horner and prove the organisation as a whole can succeed without him?

In the longer-term, should the Horner/Red Bull alliance indeed come to a sudden, gobsmacking halt, don’t bet against him popping up somewhere else quickly in a bid to spread his wings as a businessman as well as a sportsman.

If Horner does go, will Newey follow him elsewhere? Where Newey goes, success follows.

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