Red Bull’s internal war: Christian Horner is under attack and rivals are ready to pounce

Thomas Maher
Jos Verstappen and Christian Horner.

Red Bull war is brewing with Christian Horner under attack.

Max Verstappen’s leading home of a Red Bull 1-2 in Bahrain was a brief moment of normality for a team in turmoil.

After the chaos of the past few weeks, with the uncomfortable gaze of the world scrutinising every move made by Red Bull and Christian Horner, the team picked up right where they left off in 2023 by claiming a dominant 1-2 finish in Bahrain.

Email leak changes complexion of Red Bull investigation

There was a brief moment of respite for Horner during the humdrum Bahrain Grand Prix, with the Red Bull boss able to put the off-track noise aside for a short while and concentrate on his cars going around in circles – a familiar, warm, cosy blanket of an environment in which Horner thrives.

Earlier in the weekend, having had allegations into him dismissed by Red Bull GmbH following a lengthy internal investigation, it had been quite the opposite.

An email leak of alleged evidence had been sent to hundreds of F1 figures and, while there’s no confirmation that the contents of that email are genuine, it was a moment of outright humiliation – and yet Horner wouldn’t be cowed by it.

Aside from a short personal statement to state he wouldn’t be commenting on anonymous speculation from unknown sources, Horner and Red Bull put their heads down and got on with the job of the weekend – and nailed it, just as they did at 22 of the 23 races last season.

But there was a peculiar unease throughout the paddock all through the weekend, with a genuine sense of paranoia evident. After all, the email leak transformed the complexion of the past few weeks – an unknown party was clearly dissatisfied with Horner being found to be in the clear and had resorted to dirtier tactics.

It’s been a while since a genuinely grubby ‘Piranha Club’ moment has happened in F1, but the Bahrain weekend transformed what had been a seemingly straightforward corporate HR internal investigation moment into an attempted character assassination.

After all, with the investigation concluded by Red Bull GmbH on a professional level, the matter becomes personal – whatever Horner has or hasn’t done is something that the public is not entitled to know. Having been scrutinised and cleared by his employer, the rest is up to the people in Horner’s personal life – and his wife Geri Horner has remained steadfast by his side.

So resolute has the former Spice Girl been, she stared down the pressure with a very public statement of support by walking slowly hand in hand with Horner down the Bahrain paddock to Red Bull’s hospitality before the race – knowing every single flicker of her smile would be examined by ‘body language experts’.

But despite having retained the support of his employer, Red Bull GmbH, and of his family, the question marks that have been raised within F1’s environs are legitimate ones – although it’s difficult to see how they can be addressed.

In an increasingly progressive sport where inclusion and diversity are key messages throughout the paddock, there have been calls for greater transparency into GmbH’s findings and the report into the investigation that exonerated Horner.

After all, the FIA regulations and sporting codes do include broad caveats that allow for investigation into matters that bring F1 into disrepute in the public eye.

With the nature of Horner’s investigation being kept firmly under lock and key internally by Red Bull GmbH, prior to being cleared, should the FIA or F1 have the right to demand internally sensitive information from a racing team’s parent company?

Especially when the alleged information regarding the circumstances behind the investigation has become public due to an apparent leak within the organisation – and someone with an axe to grind.

Let’s not forget, also, that there are huge privacy issues involved with trying to create transparency, and not just including Horner and the parties who lodged their grievances.

Any comprehensive internal investigation, as anyone who has been through an HR process will know, will include statements and depositions from others – team and company employees, contractors, and external agencies, many of whom would have been given under confidentiality clauses. How can transparency be offered without compromising these people?

Jos Verstappen confirms internal tensions at Red Bull Racing

Before the Grand Prix started, Horner stood proudly at the front of the grid, with a clear message of support being sent by the company’s Thai majority shareholder Chalerm Yoovidhya as they posed for pictures together – Horner having come through the process with his personal and professional life intact.

But someone, somewhere, is not allowing the situation to blow over, even with the corporate process complete.

While there have been plenty of rumours of tensions within the Red Bull Racing team’s leadership, it took until hours after the chequered flag for that tension to be confirmed – and it came courtesy of Jos Verstappen, Max’s father.

“There is tension here while [Horner] remains in position,” Verstappen senior told Mail Sport. “The team is in danger of being torn apart.

“It can’t go on the way it is. It will explode. He is playing the victim, when he is the one causing the problems.”

The Daily Mail also revealed Verstappen senior had an argument with Horner following qualifying on Friday night, with the same report suggesting that Horner believes Max’s father is behind the campaign to have him removed from his position at the head of the team – a sentiment echoed by the Dutch publication De Limburger.

But Verstappen senior has denied this, saying: “That wouldn’t make sense. Why would I do that when Max is doing so well here?”

That is the most pertinent question in this whole sorry mess: Why? Both in terms of timing and the apparent attack… why? While an aggrieved party went to Red Bull HR about Horner, the matter had been dealt with and the investigation was dismissed.

For the matter to escalate in the nature it has, it suggests an attempted coup has failed – and whoever is behind it isn’t happy that it has. Certainly, the matter won’t be taken lying down by Red Bull, and understands there are internal investigations underway to determine the culprit behind the incendiary email.

Despite Verstappen’s claims, it’s also understood that the rank-and-file employees within Red Bull Racing have rallied around Horner, contrary to the suggestion that the team could be pulled apart by the ongoing situation.

However, Verstappen’s comments do make it clear that there is disharmony in some quarters. With Jos coming forth and outright calling for Horner’s axing, it’s notable that Max also has not indicated unwavering public support for his team boss.

Aside from Max labelling Horner an “incredible team boss” and focusing on the performance-related side of their relationship, the three-time World Champion has instead placed his trust in the process rather than being his usual opinionated self.

How does Red Bull handle internal division?

This is where things get very tricky for Red Bull – how to handle the fall-out of the father of your talismanic driver, a prominent figure in his own right, calling for the removal of the team boss who has been so critical and important for the success of Red Bull within F1.

Rather than it being Horner, it is public statements like Verstappen’s that lead to the destruction of a strong team ethos, particularly if the trust between the team boss and his driver is eroded as a result. Unless Max takes a stand against his father’s comments, how can Red Bull accept this situation, and continue to allow Verstappen senior to be a welcome guest of the team?

If the situation continues to deteriorate as it did over the Bahrain weekend, it wouldn’t be surprising for the situation to reach an ultimatum point – where Red Bull have to choose who is more important to the success of the team. Is it Horner, or is it the Verstappens? With GmbH exonerating Horner, that picture may be being pulled into focus a little more.

Certainly, despite Max’s long contract with Red Bull, it’s the time for rival teams to start plucking at the loose threads more. It’s not surprising, then, to have seen Wolff and Verstappen senior engaged in conversation in the paddock late on Saturday evening.

“I have known Jos for 25 years – with ups and downs – and I just congratulated him on his son’s achievements. Max drives in a galaxy all his own,” Wolff told later.

Wolff also stirred the pot a little, as he was asked whether Verstappen might yet end up in a Mercedes for 2025: “Anything is possible,” he grinned.

It’s a situation that, despite a line under the matter being drawn by Red Bull GmbH, won’t be disappearing any time soon. With F1 and the FIA understood to not be interested in putting Horner and Red Bull under further scrutiny, and the F1 team getting on with things, will the parties behind the attempted coup try again?

As for Horner, the man who had appeared physically weakened and aged as he spoke to media at the Red Bull launch in Milton Keynes two weeks ago, he left the paddock on Saturday night having taken his beating – and still standing at the end of it.

Despite everything, Red Bull delivered the dominant 1-2 everyone had feared was coming, with the margin of advantage even greater than the same race last year. It’s this success that can make a man untouchable, which is perhaps the concern behind why others are calling for more details to emerge.

In the process of being hauled over the coals in his personal life and humiliated publicly as well as in the sport in which he has become one of the greats in history, he left the paddock quietly and discreetly hours after the race.

With the paddock all but deserted, aside from the roar of forklifts packing up, Christian and Geri walked hand in hand towards an awaiting car outside the dismantled turnstiles.

The couple were chatting and smiling together, unaccompanied and undisturbed – no handlers or photographers hindering their walk, with only me and a smattering of departing FIA staff there to observe.

Approaching the car, Horner opened the door for his wife and she climbed in, her smile never leaving her face.

Read Next: Helmut Marko addresses Red Bull collapse fears as Christian Horner turmoil continues