Christian Horner realised he wouldn’t make it as an elite F1 driver after an encounter with Juan Pablo Montoya on track.
While Horner might have carved out a hugely successful career as the long-time team boss of the World Championship-winning team Red Bull, the young Horner had attempted a racing career hopeful of making it to F1 and becoming World Champion.
It started well, winning races through British Formula Renault and British Formula Three, moving up to Formula 3000 in 1997 after setting up his own team Arden. But, at the start of 1998, Horner met Juan Pablo Montoya on track and realised he would never make it as an elite F1 driver.
Christian Horner: Doubts started to creep in as I climbed through the ranks
Appearing on the Eff One podcast, Horner spoke about his years in the feeder series as he began to close in on Formula 1, having tested an F1 car with Lotus, but that his doubts had started to kick in even before his fateful incident with Juan Pablo Montoya.
“I lacked in the presenting of confidence,” Horner wryly smiled, when he was asked about the difference in how he presented himself versus his real confidence levels when at home in private.
“But I could just visualise that ‘ Yeah, I’m gonna do it one day, I’m gonna do it.’
“The problem is that, the higher you rise, the harder it gets. There’s more competition and the cars get faster and suddenly danger becomes prevalent.
“Suddenly, racing in a Formula 2 car and driving a Formula 1 car, I thought ‘Wow, this is getting serious. You could seriously mess your hair up in this.’
“There was something in me that started to build a little bit of a doubt, and a bit of a safety factor, particularly in some of the high-speed corners.”
Juan Pablo Montoya single-handedly dashes Christian Horner’s F1 dreams
Heading into the 1998 season, the second for Arden, Horner revealed he had already entered the season knowing he needed to find a new career path as Juan Pablo Montoya showed him what top-level drivers were capable of.
The Colombian, who won the International Formula 3000 title in 1997 with RSM Marko (yes, that Marko) and was already a Williams F1 test driver, would win the title again in 1998 and, along the way, dash the hopes of Horner.
“Getting brain and foot to connect at that point, I had a damper in between,” Horner said of his increasing uncertainty.
“In the slow-speed corners, you could be as quick as anybody because there’s less risk.
“But when you’re haring down the straight at over 200 miles an hour and you’re coming up to the corner that everybody’s telling you ‘ You know that’s flat-out.’
“Your brain is computing, and is going ‘That doesn’t look flat out to me’ and your heart is saying ‘No, come on, let’s get on with it’.
“My brain would often overrule my heart and say, ‘Come on. Let’s build a margin in here.’ Then you end up building up to it.
“The really good guys, they’ve just got a natural aptitude for it, a complete inner confidence in themselves, a feeling of that car, and they don’t have to build up to it. They just go and do it.”
“That’s something I’ve seen from when I was driving with the really good guys as well, they just go and do it. They don’t need a build-up. They don’t need a session.
“I had this very vivid moment where I was running in Formula 3000, now the Formula 2 equivalent, and Juan Pablo Montoya [was there].
“We were at Estoril before the season, and there was a long straight. It’s an old-school track, and it had two very fast right-hand corners with a barrier that was about 20 metres from the track.
“It was a sixth gear corner so we’re talking 160/170 miles an hour. I’m coming out of the pit lane that filters onto the track and Montoya comes haring past, he commits to this right-hand turn and I can just see the car moving and dancing around and the rim is trying to pop through the sidewall of the tyre and he’s on opposite lock.
“And he’s got his right foot absolutely planted. I just knew at that point, ‘I can’t do that. I cannot.’
“I couldn’t have the confidence, or the skill, or the bravery to commit to that corner in the way he did. So I knew, prior to that season, I was honest with myself to say, ‘Look, I’m not even going to try and carve a career out in another category. I’m going to need to do something because I don’t want to go to university. I need to earn a living.'”
Horner would go on to turn Arden into a very serious junior category team, before being asked by Dietrich Mateschitz to head up the new Red Bull F1 team – a massive gamble from the Austrian businessman, which proved genius – Horner moulding the team into an outfit that has won multiple championships in the two decades since.