Red Bull team boss Christian Horner on F1’s political struggles, the loss of Vettel, the rise of Ricciardo, the art of keeping Adrian Newey happy and a potentially tricky road ahead
In the early hours of December 6 a silver 4×4 was driven through the glass doors of the reception to the Red Bull F1 team and four men proceeded to steal the contents of the 40-foot high trophy cabinet. The incongruity of having the spoils of four world championships and 50 grand prix victories on display in an unpretentious, relatively unsecured building on a Milton Keynes industrial estate neatly summarises just how fast and how far Christian Horner and the team he runs on behalf of soft drinks billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz have risen. Just 10 years ago Horner was a 28-year-old rookie team boss. Now he presides over one of the most successful teams in all of F1’s history, one of only three (together with McLaren and Ferrari) to have won four consecutive world titles for constructors.
The 2014 season was the first check to Horner’s ascendancy. Daniel Ricciardo’s three race victories represented just the crumbs from the Mercedes table, the team lost the services of its quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel at the end of the year and the technical architect of all that success, Adrian Newey, came close to joining rival Ferrari before accepting an ostensibly reduced F1 role within the company. As if fighting those fires didn’t keep him busy enough, Horner was also at the centre of trying to establish a way through the current commercial turmoil of F1 as part of the controversial strategy group. He has a lot to talk about – and did so just upstairs from where, a few days later, that 4×4 would come crashing through the night.
Just like his factory base, Horner still has the front of a recent arrival into the sport. The aloof untouchable persona, detached from the real world, found in some of the longer-established giants, just isn’t there. He is affable and down to earth, but the former Sandhurst boy has a chameleon-like ability to be comfortable at all levels and not far beneath the soft front is the sort of steeliness necessary for success in such an uncompromising environment. In team principal terms he might be the new boy, but even swimming with the old powerful piranhas he’s prevailed and prospered – and that doesn’t happen by chance. Right from the start he carried weight as the representative of one of the biggest investors in the entire motor sport industry. He carries even more as the boss of a multiple world championship-winning team. But he’s used it well, made all the right moves.
It seems an impossibly short time ago that the would-be F3000 driver was worrying about whether he’d done the right thing, buying a trailer from an Austrian guy called Helmut Marko who would deliver it to Calais. “When I came back my father said, ‘So, where is this trailer?’ and I said, ‘It’s in Austria’. He said, ‘So you’ve borrowed all this money from the bank, given it to some bloke you’ve known for an hour and he still has the trailer?’ I rang Helmut every day for a week to get reassurance that it was on its way!” Needless to say, the trailer was forthcoming. But the results in F3000 weren’t: Horner describes seeing Juan Pablo Montoya drive past him, and doing things with a car he could never hope to emulate, as the moment he decided he wasn’t going to make it to F1 as a driver.
He may have surrendered the route, but the target remained F1; towering ambition always marked him out. He climbed out of the cockpit but kept the Arden F3000 team, just as Marko was getting out of team ownership to look after the Red Bull junior driver programme full time. In 2004 Horner did a deal with the Austrian whereby he would run the Red Bull guys for a very low base fee but a hefty win bonus. Tonio Liuzzi won seven races in the first year of that arrangement. Arden had won consecutive F3000 titles and it was time for Christian to move on. “Helmut then introduced me to Dietrich, who bought what was then the Jaguar F1 team. I’d been knocking at Jordan initially and Dietrich had been knocking at a couple of other teams. They acquired Jaguar and changed the management – giving me my F1 opportunity.”
Where the fresh perspective of a new boy scored over those of the established big teams was in the application of simple pragmatism unencumbered by previous history. As a new team boss it was very logical that he should form a close link with the man who ran the sport, Bernie Ecclestone. It was also logical that he should go out and hire the best F1 designer – and Horner succeeded in enticing Adrian Newey away from McLaren within less than a year of arriving in F1. “He was very attracted by the freedom Red Bull represented,” says Horner. “The attitude, the environment were very different from where he’d been. And after we succeeded in getting Adrian on board I well remember Ron Dennis standing up at the Autosport Awards and saying that Adrian Newey was a dinosaur and that F1 was no longer about people like Adrian – so I think that helped with his motivation!”
Formula 1 was absolutely still about people like Adrian – especially when the team boss was enlightened enough to give him technical freedom, and the team still young enough to be formed around his skills rather than making them fit into a box. “Adrian’s recruitment was a key point. Because then, at the end of 2005, suddenly Red Bull was a team that was serious about its ambitions about wanting to be a real grand prix contender and that caused people to sit up and take notice. They didn’t believe it at first here, they’d heard it all before with Jaguar [when Bobby Rahal had almost succeeded in bringing Newey on board]. But then he turned up – and we set off on the journey.”
It was a very fast journey of glory and riches, Sebastian Vettel the embodiment of the team in his combination of performance, youth and fun. But the party began to peter out this year – and it was something Horner knew was coming. The new hybrid engine formula was about to change the competitive landscape and Red Bull’s long-term partnership with Renault was going to put it at a disadvantage. “We identified two years ago that we were behind where we needed to be with Renault on the new engines. We had numerous meetings in Paris with different board members including the CEO. We were saying we need to be doing something different but unfortunately we couldn’t influence that change. The previous management at Renault had been the ones pushing for the new formula. Red Bull didn’t support that position but Renault was adamant. Their vision was for a hybrid four-cylinder, but that was compromised by the move to a V6. We knew from the dyno numbers and the lack of preparation we were on the back foot and then we began hearing on the grapevine about the heat rejection and torque numbers of the Mercedes that were in an entirely different spectrum to where we were with Renault. Hats off to Mercedes; they started early, put a lot of focus into it, outsourced very little and came up with a great piece of technology. It was evident from the first test we were in a woeful situation. In fairness, at that test it was not just from the engine – we had been over-aggressive in some of the packaging of the car around the exhaust. The bloody thing wouldn’t run without either setting itself on fire or just stopping. That Jerez test was character-building and the whole pre-season just disastrous.”
It was all the more remarkable then when new recruit Daniel Ricciardo stuck the car on the front row for the season-opener in Melbourne and proceeded to finish second (though it was a result later rendered null and void for having exceeded the new fuel-flow regulation). That was the first time the RB10’s true potential – best of the rest behind the works Mercs – was revealed. That it was Ricciardo rather than Vettel demonstrating such potential would become something of a seasonal theme.
“Daniel was just amazing and Melbourne set the tone for his season. After all those years going there as Mark [Webber]’s home race and seeing all the expectation weighing heavily on him, now it was Daniel’s home race. The Aussies love their sport and the expectation is huge. Daniel had that as a young guy on his debut with the team, yet calmly stuck it on the front row and finished on the podium. This was at a race where so many things were happening with the car. We had never got it past 20 laps before, so from there onwards was all new to us. He was very busy in there. Yet his composure was total. He really ticked all the boxes in that very first race; it was an incredible performance.
“We already knew he was fast. Not just from Toro Rosso but when he’d tested for us over the years. But there were questions about his racecraft – yet that turned out to be the shining quality about his performances. Some of the overtaking he did was amazing and he barely put a foot wrong. It was this that gave us confidence not to go for a name in replacing Seb, but just to promote Daniil Kvyat from Toro Rosso, because Daniel had shown us that these guys can do it. The stable has a lot of exciting talent that is home-nurtured. The easy thing to do is take on a name, but there’s a lot of expense involved in that and where is the next Alonso or Hamilton going to come from if you don’t invest in the youngsters? Dietrich was never under any doubt about his preference; it was Daniel all the way and after we had him in the car at the Silverstone test we all – myself, Helmut and Dietrich – congregated to that view.”
The dynamic between the three men is interesting. The whole thing is Mateschitz’s, Marko runs the young driver programme and Horner the F1 team, but they each have influence in the overall picture. “Dietrich is a competitive man but also someone with great vision. He’s quite a shy individual but if he feels there is something he wants to get across, he does so – whether that’s with Bernie, [majority F1 shareholder CVC’s chairman] Donald Mackenzie or Jean Todt. Even in the early years, when the results weren’t there, he never lost belief and gave me great support and backing. He’s a super-nice guy, very passionate about motor sport and his business. He’s got a great ability to understand the dynamics of any situation quickly. He’s very driven, works incredibly hard even when he doesn’t need to. Helmut behind the scenes has given great support in allowing us to get on and run the business – which is where Jaguar failed and where other manufacturer teams have failed. F1 is a unique business and Dietrich and Helmut give me the support to get on and run it, enabling us just to deliver. All the big decisions – driver, engine or something strategic – Dietrich is very much involved. But the great thing is that there is no board or board approval. It’s as simple as a phone call and a yes or no answer.”
It’s difficult not to think that this has been a central part in the team’s success, enabling it swiftly to outflank those teams more heavily corporately loaded and with many more layers of management; that and having Newey in charge technically – which was why Adrian giving serious consideration to a substantial Ferrari offer was a potentially troubling development for Horner. “Adrian had done 26 straight years of F1 and at the pace he works that’s pretty intensive. He’s not a fan of the new regulations because they are very restrictive for a creative engineer, and Adrian is essentially an artist. Also, he was disillusioned with the competitiveness of our power unit. All that made him take stock around spring time and inevitably teams were knocking on his door. We discussed the future, discussed it with Dietrich and he decided he wanted to continue to be involved in F1 but would like to develop an advanced technology department that would look at some other projects.” One of the attractions of the Ferrari offer for Newey had been the chance of creating a special road-going Ferrari and part of the blinder Horner has played in holding onto him is believed to include the project of creating a Red Bull road car. Let’s see where Adrian’s focus is when confronted with type approval and other legislation. F1 may suddenly seem very attractive again.
“The racer in him still burns intensely. He’s very much involved in next year’s car and will probably split his time 50/50 between F1 and advanced technology. If we then get an F1 regulation change, it suddenly becomes much more interesting for him. He has a paternal feeling for this team, enjoys the atmosphere and freedom that he has here, the relationship he has with his engineers. That’s how we’ve managed to get the best out of him. He’s left to create, without all the responsibilities of running a department. I doubt he even knows where the pattern shop is! That’s not his role.
“We’ve created a structure with [chief designer] Rob Marshall, [head of vehicle dynamics] Pierre Wache, [chief aerodynamicist] Dan Fallows and [chief engineer] Paul Monaghan making up a senior technical group that Rob chairs and Adrian just feeds into. We have tremendous strength in depth here and the way they’ve developed the car shows that. A good case study in how it all works was when Adrian decided a few years ago that he wanted to put the KERS batteries inside the gearbox! You couldn’t think of a place that’s hotter, more vibration-prone and difficult to access. But it got them out of the wind – and Rob simply said ‘Yeah, we’ll have a crack at that’ and made it work.”
Despite the loss of blown diffusers, the Red Bull RB10 was generally still reckoned to be aerodynamically the best of the 2014 cars, better even than the dominant Mercedes W05. But the technical staff had evidently got around the new aero regs better than Vettel. The biggest surprise of the season was surely how Seb failed to adapt to the different technique required in driving a car without exhaust blowing. “It all caused Seb a lot of head-scratching. He couldn’t understand how Daniel was extracting the performance from the car yet managing the tyres: it was almost reminiscent of Seb 12 months earlier. It was the first time in his career he’d been in that situation and it was difficult for him, seeing his team-mate sometimes 25-30sec up the road. Seb just never really found comfort in the car or a technique that really suited this tyre and downforce.
“In the run-up to the summer break, with his team-mate suddenly winning races, you could see Seb really suffering. He’s such a competitive guy. He did a lot of searching, of himself and car set-up, and in all honesty probably got a bit lost searching for something that wasn’t in the car. And that played heavily on his mind. After the summer break we had Spa – where again Daniel was able to capitalise on misdemeanours between the Mercs, then Monza. That was a crunch point for Seb in terms of his decision-making for the future. I had an inkling around that time, very much so. It accelerated in his mind from around the summer. We touched on it… openly talking about the following year, changes we were making in the structure. He was involved in all of that but I could just feel – I’ve grown to know him very well – that he was distracted, uncomfortable, all this pressure on his shoulders and it was really in Singapore that it seemed to lift, which I’m guessing is because he’d made up his mind about which route he wanted to take. His performance there was super.
“We enjoyed a wonderful time with Seb. We got the best from each other and he grew as we grew. If you reflect on what we did together during that time it’s unbelievable and some of his performances over the years have been incredible. That driver is still in there. So for sure he’ll be a major asset to Ferrari. He’s an old soul in a young body, very wise. I think he’ll go for as long as he enjoys it and is passionate about it. He’s only 27 but I wouldn’t be surprised if he stopped early. He has other things in his life that are important to him.”
Also looking to the future, Horner seems less optimistic about the strategy group ever finding a solution to F1’s current ills. A year ago this group – comprising 18 members including the team bosses of the top six teams – was empowered to make the rules. The group has tried and so far failed to bring any meaningful reduction in costs and two teams have gone out of business on its watch. “I think there needs to be a revolution,” says Horner, “because the strategy group is making little traction, has been going for 12 months and we’ve argued about the same agenda points at pretty much every meeting. There are different vested interests in the room and really the only time I guess it will dramatically be affected is when the income drops from the promoter. The promoters have done a great job in increasing the income year on year. Ironically the thing that would drive that change is if the money starts to die. There needs to be a firm hand and the FIA and promoter need to be firmly aligned.”
So should the FIA be put back in charge? “No, I think their role is as a regulator. In looking at who should be imposing the rules, whose business is it? The business belongs to CVC and they need to recognise what the problems are and steer the ship. They should say, ‘This is what F1 needs to be’ and then make it happen. In the old days, when it was Bernie’s show, that is how it used to happen because he had that dictatorial power. Even to the biggest manufacturer in the world he could say ‘it’s my way or the highway’. That doesn’t exist now and it’s a very passive environment.”
And what should F1 be? “Foremost it needs to be entertaining. It has got to be exciting, with a wow factor about the cars so the first time you turn up you never forget. The first time I saw one was at Silverstone in ’91. It went past at Woodcote and the energy it exuded, with this little blob sitting in the car, made you wonder how the hell he was controlling it. The drivers need to be the stars, but all within the framework of cost because at the moment the costs are too high. We should probably use the technology that’s there but reduce the burden to the manufacturers because how long are they going to continue to pump in the collective billions they do, particularly if two of them are getting beaten? At some point the chairman’s going to say, ‘This doesn’t make sense, we’re spending hundreds of millions to get our arses kicked, where’s our return on investment? Let’s go’.
“Manufacturers bring money into the sport. But we have to remember they are here only for a return on investment. What we need to protect are the entrants, teams that are there year-in, year-out. Williams is a classic example; partnerships with six or seven manufacturers over the years, but still there.”
He agrees the big teams are too big for sustainability. “Absolutely – and the thing driving that are the complex rules. Teams are trying to circumnavigate them in ever-more complex ways which drives up head count and spend. On the technical side, we introduced engines created by a bunch of engine engineers and not one of them had the criteria of cost – fascinating technology but extremely expensive. The cost burden is disproportionate. There’s very little left over in the budget of a small team once they have paid for their engines – and their weight means there is a lot of pressure to save weight in the car, and that’s very expensive. I think we should be looking at standardising ers systems and then if some of those smaller teams could keep the FOM revenue without having to be constructors. Would not having to invest in the infrastructure and R&D have helped a team like Marussia to survive and be more competitive?”
Such talk only fuels those who see him as Bernie’s long-term replacement. “It’s always flattering hearing that kind of comment. But I enjoy the competition and the challenges ahead. It’s not something to which I’ve given a great deal of thought. I’m still young.” That’s not a ‘no’ is it? Keep in mind that towering ambition, too.
A revolution, he says…