There is quite a pleasing functionality about Red Bull’s base on an industrial estate in Milton Keynes. It has an opulent trophy cabinet, of course, and there’s a show car suspended at 90 degrees by the entrance lobby, but frills are few and far between. The factory was home to Paul Stewart Racing, Stewart GP and Jaguar Racing before Red Bull took the keys.
It’s a busy period for Christian Horner, with F1’s brief pre-season test schedule in full swing and grand prix racing trying to plot a practical course around a world that is beginning to feel the effects of a coronavirus lockdown. He suggests it would be most efficient to meet at team HQ, where he selects chicken breast with jacket potato and peas as an accompaniment to a conversation that embraces eight whirlwind years.
When Horner sat down for lunch with Simon Taylor towards the end of 2011 [Motor Sport, January 2012], Red Bull had just completed its second F1 title double. Its reign of supremacy still had time to run, but since then he’s had to manage the team’s fall from domination, the dissolution of one of racing’s most combustible recent partnerships, the departure of wunderkind Sebastian Vettel, the emergence of Max Verstappen, the birth of an Aston Martin hypercar and Honda’s return as a serious force in grand prix racing. Almost 10 years have passed since Red Bull secured its inaugural F1 titles. Just where has the time gone? Horner shrugs. “It seems to have flown past,” he says, “and a remarkable amount has happened in the interim.”
“I had some discussions with Kimi Räikkönen’s management”
To recap, Vettel won the 2010 title on the final day of the campaign. It was the only time all year that he’d topped the points table, but Vettel was never headed the following season. In 2012, however, things began a little strangely, with the first seven races producing as many different winners. Vettel won in Bahrain, but hadn’t added to his tally by the time teams set off for the end-of-year flyways.
“At that stage,” Horner remembers, “we introduced some upgrades that really suited him. He won four races in a row from Singapore and thus went into the final race with a shot at the title. [Team-mate] Mark Webber was out of the reckoning and we spoke beforehand about how he could assist. As the race started, though, he all but put Sebastian in the wall on the run to Turn 1, which I couldn’t remember having been mentioned in the briefing! Then Bruno Senna and Seb tangled at Turn 4 and I genuinely thought that was it, given the strength of the impact. We could see the bodywork was damaged – and the data immediately told us he’d lost a lot of load from the floor.
“While the field was behind the safety car, we managed to get some pictures of the damage and sent them back to the factory for analysis. They were able to see that the exhaust pipe had a significant dent, but that it looked mainly okay. It was one of those horrible wet-dry races and as Seb started to come back through the field the title became a reality again. He got the sixth place he needed [to win the title], accompanied by great euphoria, but later there was an inquest into whether he’d overtaken under a yellow flag [onboard footage proved he hadn’t], so it was a pretty stressful campaign.
“We weren’t quite sure how effective the 2013 car was going to be, because the Pirelli tyres really were super-sensitive that season. We locked out the front row in Melbourne, but Kimi Räikkönen won for Lotus and Seb was third. The next race in Malaysia was massively tyre-critical, too. We’d spoken to both drivers about not pushing too hard. We started on inters, but Seb made the wrong call and came in too early for slicks, which put Mark into the lead… and brought us to the infamous ‘Multi 21’ controversy.
“Sebastian had an extra set of new tyres for the final stint, something he’d saved from the previous day, so he had a pace and grip advantage, but we had given them both the order to hold position and not risk compromising a one-two. ‘Multi 21’ simply meant that the car in second should stay there, but Seb completely ignored it. We knew his radio was working because as soon as we told him to adjust a fuel setting he’d do it immediately, but clearly, there was some interference when we asked him to remain behind his team-mate… Exactly the same thing had been going on at Mercedes, but its drivers did as they were told.”
Friction between the duo had rarely been far from the surface – Webber lost a potential win in the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix when Vettel, then of Toro Rosso, hit him during a safety car period, and they collided more fractiously as team-mates when disputing the lead of the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix.
“Dietrich had a handshake agreement for Mercedes engines”
By the time Vettel went on a record-equalling run of nine-straight victories following F1’s summer break, wrapping up another brace of titles for Red Bull and himself, Webber had committed to Porsche in the World Endurance Championship. “He had informed [Red Bull founder] Dietrich Mateschitz that he’d be leaving but hadn’t told anybody in the team – I received a text message on my way to Silverstone, just before the announcement was made. I like Mark and we get along fine, but if I’m honest there was almost a sense of relief because there had been so much tension between the two of them. It gave us a clean sheet for 2014.
“The contenders were our Toro Rosso youngsters, Jean-Éric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo, plus Kimi Räikkönen. Kimi had driven very well that year and we wanted a bolt-in, plug-and-play team-mate for Seb. Kimi was apolitical, which made him an attractive proposition, and I had some discussions with his management. But we’d only have taken that option had we been convinced that our juniors weren’t strong enough to fill the seat. At that stage, if you’d had to pick one, you’d probably have taken Jean-Éric, but Daniel stepped things up after that race.”
Ricciardo would out-score Vergne by seven points and win the qualifying battle 15-4 against his team-mate over the course of 2013 to thrust himself into Red Bull contention, earning the seat for 2014.
“Later in the year , there was a tyre test that gave us a good excuse to put Daniel in our car. He performed incredibly well and the engineers gave glowing feedback. We knew he was quick and could qualify well, but my biggest doubt was whether he could actually race – we hadn’t seen much wheel-to-wheel stuff from him at Toro Rosso, but as soon as he got in a Red Bull he never stopped overtaking people.”
Not only that but within a few races he had established himself as the team’s most effective performer of F1’s new hybrid era.
“The dynamic between Seb and Daniel was very different,” Horner says. “You had this youngster with a puppy-like enthusiasm, happy to do all the sponsorship appearances and the simulator work, which meant that Sebastian didn’t have to! Daniel would do whatever we asked and was very keen to learn from a four-time world champion – they had a good relationship, with a very healthy respect, and Seb was genuinely very pleased for him when he won his first race in Montréal. I think by that stage Seb was so fed up with the Renault situation and Ferrari was actively courting him, so by the time we went into the summer break it already felt as though he was unlikely to hang around.”
Red Bull’s crown had slipped.
“I went to see [former Renault/Nissan CEO] Carlos Ghosn early in 2014 about the investment Renault needed to make,” Horner says, “because it was clear Mercedes had stolen a march, but unfortunately my pleas fell on deaf ears. The next two seasons felt tough, having come off the back of all that success. We won three races and finished second in the championship for constructors in 2014, but that was still a huge comedown from where we’d been. It was hard to keep the group together because offers were coming in for all our key players. It was a different challenge.
“Seb made his decision during the Japanese GP weekend and spoke to Helmut Marko and me individually at the circuit hotel. I could tell there was no point trying to convince him to stay. We’d had some great times together so the only thing to do was wish him the best for the future.” That was quite a wrench. Vettel had first appeared at the F1 factory unannounced, as a teenage Red Bull junior who’d just passed his driving test and decided it would be a good idea to jump in the car and drive from southern Germany to Milton Keynes to introduce himself – the only driver on the programme to take such an initiative. Before that run of world titles, he would score the first – and only – grand prix victory for Toro Rosso, as well as the first for Red Bull, and likewise endeared himself to the senior team by chatting in cockney rhyming slang during his first formal test. He was also sufficiently curious about the wider world to learn the tic-tac sign language deployed by UK bookmakers at horse-racing events…
“Whenever he was in the UK, he’d stay at our house,” Horner says. “I got him out delivering lambs, shooting clay pigeons, all sorts… We hit it off from day one and always had a good relationship. After he left, I decided I needed to change the way I ran things – it’s very difficult to have somebody who is both a friend and an employee and Seb had become a mate. I came to a conscious decision that there should in future be boundaries between team principal and drivers.”
As Vettel prepared for life with Ferrari, Red Bull began to mould its future with the recruitment of Max Verstappen. The Dutch-Belgian isn’t a traditional Red Bull driver, in that he got as far as Formula 3 before attracting support, though he was only 16 at that point…
“When he was karting, people were talking about him as an exceptional prospect,” Horner says. “Helmut was reluctant to get involved at that point, but later he watched him competing in F3 at Silverstone and started to take an interest – it might also have been a factor that [Marko’s old racing rival] Niki Lauda was showing an interest in recruiting him for Mercedes. It became a bit of a challenge to see who could sign him first. Helmut has always been good at spotting talent and the one thing he could offer, which Mercedes couldn’t, was an F1 seat. It was a ballsy move because Max was only halfway through his first season of car racing. I think [Toro Rosso team principal] Franz Tost was concerned about his lack of experience – and then he did a demonstration run in a show car [Rotterdam, August 2014] and knocked off the front wing! His next outing was at Suzuka, where he took part in FP1, and Franz spent the first 20 minutes trying to slow him down through 130R – I think he was flat from about his second lap. He did a phenomenal job and you could see very quickly that he was something out of the ordinary.”
“Max very much believes in the project and Honda adores him”
Verstappen made his F1 debut in the 2015 Australian Grand Prix, aged 17, and two races later he was the talk of the Shanghai paddock after a series of aggressive – but beautifully executed – overtakes, accomplished from a long way back without the hint of a locked wheel. “He is completely instinctive, and his racing brain is the best I’ve seen,” Horner says.
The 2015 campaign would be Red Bull’s first since 2008 without a single race victory. Promoted from Toro Rosso, Russian Daniil Kvyat acquitted himself well alongside Ricciardo – and scored more points, thanks in part to greater reliability – but…
“It felt as though things were coming together,” Horner says. “It had been a big step from Toro Rosso in only Daniil’s second year of grand prix racing – and he’d driven some great races, particularly towards the back end of the season. The RB12 chassis was a big step forward for 2016, but we’d changed brake supplier [from Brembo to Carbone Industrie] and he struggled to adapt. There was abig time delta to Daniel through pre-season testing. He secured a podium in China – but Daniel had a puncture while leading and there was still a sizeable gap between them. Then he torpedoed Seb at the start in Russia, all of which coincided with some trigger points coming up in Max’s contract. Several other teams were showing interest and as Red Bull is in the unique position of owning four cockpits, swapping the two made sense.”
The script wrote itself. Once Mercedes team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg had taken each out on the opening lap of the Spanish Grand Prix, Red Bull split strategies.
“It was on the cusp of being a two-stop race or a three-stopper,” Horner says. “When Ferrari went for the undercut and pitted Sebastian, we covered him with Daniel and thought three stops would be the premium strategy. But Max managed to look after his tyres and put in an incredibly mature performance for somebody that had never driven the car before first practice. In the end, we never found out what might have happened, because Daniel ran wide at Turn 1, but it would have been one of those races that converged over the final two laps. Max handled the pressure phenomenally well and was so cool. From his radio communications, you would never have known this was an 18-year-old leading a grand prix for the first time.”
F1 had its first teenage winner and Red Bull its maiden success with a ‘TAG-Heuer’ engine, in essence, a rebadged Renault. There had been an ever-growing spat between team and engine supplier during the summer of 2015, to the point that the two agreed to go their separate ways as Renault renewed its focus by buying back its old Enstone-based team from Genii Capital and returning to F1 as a full works operation. “At that stage,” Horner says, “Dietrich had a handshake agreement for the supply of Mercedes engines, to which Niki Lauda had agreed.” But Lauda did not have the authority to rubber-stamp such a deal and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff subsequently blocked it, leaving Red Bull without an engine… A rapprochement with Renault was subsequently reached – one of the conditions being that the engine had to be called something else – and Horner was simultaneously having to fight other fires.
“Ferrari had offered Adrian Newey a film star lifestyle and salary and it was quite likely that he would leave,” Horner says, “because he saw no hope of success with Renault and the Ferrari offer would allow him to do other things, such as a road car. So, I said: ‘Don’t worry, we can do that…’ At the time I had no idea how we were going to do it, but we created Red Bull Advanced Technologies to start exploring how we could put a roadcar together. Adrian started drawing away, creating surfaces and exploring his vision. When Andy Palmer moved across from Renault/Nissan to take over as Aston Martin’s CEO, I told him that Red Bull wasn’t in a position to take on the liability of producing a road car but could act as a design house for an automotive manufacturer, so why didn’t we do something together?”
That would become the Valkyrie, of which 150 are due to be built at £2.6m apiece. And Newey remains at Red Bull, as he has been since 2006 – the longest continuous spell of employment of his F1 design career.
When first the Renault deal fell apart, followed shortly afterwards by the ‘agreement’ with Mercedes, Horner had initially explored the possibility of a 2016 alliance with Honda. “Bernie Ecclestone was very keen to help push it through,” he says, “but McLaren had a power of veto and – quite rightly, from their perspective – exercised it. Ron Dennis was still there at the time and could see the potential. After Ron left, though, the new management eventually decided to split with Honda and it made absolute sense for us to team up [initially through Toro Rosso] because we’d simply been getting more and more frustrated and, without a competitive engine, it was difficult to see Red Bull committing to F1 in the longer term. We had nothing to lose.”
The Toro Rosso deal began in 2018 – a chance for things to develop before Honda’s technology was integrated into last season’s Red Bull RB15, with which Verstappen won in Austria, Germany and Brazil. “It’s a like-minded relationship,” Horner says. “Rather than constantly looking at cost, Honda is focused on performance – of course, they’re cost-conscious, but we’d turn up at the circuit with Renault and the spare engine would have no MGU-K fitted, there were never enough engines to go on the dyno and there were only just enough to go racing. Honda’s approach is very much ‘let’s go racing properly’.
“We’ve started to see that pay dividends. To get a podium at our first race together, in Melbourne… the Honda guys were crying at the podium ceremony. It was phenomenal to see that emotion. Winning in Austria, Red Bull’s home race, was a bit like a fairy tale – everybody was crying at that one. Max very much believes in the project and Honda adores him. It’s a combination that playeda fundamental part in his recent decisionto extend his contract. He prompted that deal. He didn’t want to go into 2020 with people speculating, asking him every weekend about next year. He wanted to start the campaign knowing what his future was. There are no guarantees for anybody when the new rules come in for 2021 [now set for 2022] and he believes in the people here, so why go anywhere else?”
Ricciardo, though, has played no part in Red Bull’s re-emergence. His decision to quit the team, taken during the summer of 2018, caught everybody unawares. “We’d started negotiating early that season,” Horner says. “In Barcelona I asked Dietrich to get involved, which is very unusual, but I wanted him to have a word with Daniel and show him some love. He offered him a very generous contract – way beyond what we’d been thinking – and atthat point, I thought he had everything he wanted. We were after a two-year deal, then in Germany, he turned around and said he wanted to extend for a single season – he was uncertain about our Honda partnership and wanted to be a free agent at the end of 2019. Dietrich agreed to that, too, and Daniel was due to re-sign on the Monday, before a tyre test that followed the Hungarian Grand Prix. That didn’t happen and on the Tuesday he was in the car, did the debrief and went straight to the airport. I did begin to wonder, because he had this fantastic deal on the table, so why hadn’t he signed? He made up his mind while flying to his summer break in Los Angeles. He called me after he landed – and he can be a bit of a joker, so you never really know, but when he told me he was going to Renault, I thought ‘What?!’ He’d just had an engine change in Hungary, his engine had blown in Hockenheim, every aggravation we’d had was related to the engine, but now he was going to join them. If he’d told me he was going to Ferrari or Mercedes, I’d have understood. I think he repeated it about three times before I started to believe him.”
They parted on amicable terms. His leaving gift? “He’s a great guy and driver,” Horner says. “I presented him with a 1992 Clio stuffed with cans of Red Bull to the point that the rear axle was about to break…”
In the relatively short time since the Australian’s departure, Verstappen has had two team-mates – Pierre Gasly in the opening part of 2019, Alex Albon since last summer.
“Pierre is exceptionally fast when everything is just right,” Horner says, “but he had two pre-season testing accidents and you could see the pressure mounting. The harder he tried, the slower he seemed to go. It was painful to watch because we knew he was quick and wanted him to do well. I don’t think the RB15 was the easiest car to drive – it’s just Max made it look easy. Pierre just got into a downward spiral to the extent that he was lapped in Hungary and Austria when Max was challenging for victory. We couldn’t keep going like that and it was almost cruel to have him in that environment. Daniil Kvyat was a good benchmark at Toro Rosso and Alex Albon had a good start to the year, so for us, there was nothing to lose by giving Alex the next nine races – and, given his relative lack of experience, I think he did really well.
“He’s up against arguably the best driver in the world at the moment and will be judged by that at every grand prix. But he’s a smart lad and works hard. He reminds me of Damon Hill, in that he’s determined, motivated and sufficiently intelligent to make full use of the opportunities he has. I think he will get close to Max, and we need both cars to be taking points off other teams if we’re going to put together any sort of campaign this year.”
Does he have any regret that Red Bull did not re-sign one of 2019’s star turns, Carlos Sainz Jr, after first loaning him to Renault?
“We looked at his 2018 performances against Nico Hülkenberg,” he says. “It was obvious that he was talented, but we weren’t sure he had the level of consistency we sought. He is obviously happy in the environment at McLaren, though, and has done a great job since he went there. I think he’s one of those drivers who deliver when everything around him is aligned – so perhaps, with the benefit of greater experience, he has now broadened his performance envelope.”
It was interesting, at the start of 2019, that Toro Rosso opted for Kvyat and Albon, both of whom had previously been dropped from Red Bull’s junior ranks. What happened to its once rich seam of young talent?
“You could see the pressure mounting on Gasly”
“It goes in waves,” Horner says. “A good bunch of drivers arrives at the same level all at once, but then you get fallow periods. The programme is more condensed than it used to be, but we have some very promising youngsters coming through – Juri Vips is competing in Super Formula [with Team Mugen] this season, Yuki Tsunoda is in F2 with Carlin and Liam Lawson and Dennis Hauger are with Hitech in FIA F3. There are peaks and troughs, but there is a decent pool of talent.” How might F1 look if and when they graduate to the highest level?
“I think it will be very different with the new rules,” he says, “but we won’t know whether they’ve got things right until there are 20 cars out there. It has made this year the most expensive in F1 history for us because we have the current car to deal with, an interim chassis for tyre testing and have to start early development of the 2021 [now 2022] car before the new budget cap comes into force, so we’re seeing a cost escalation. It would have been better, to my mind, to bring in the budget cap for 12 months and then introduce the new regs a year later, by which stage we’d have been resource-restricted. But I think Liberty is doing a good job. It is trying to make the sport more appealing, numbers on digital media are growing, we’re seeing big crowds and generally, the sport is heading in the right direction.
“Ultimately, F1 has to decide what it is– a technology showcase or high-speed entertainment? If you follow the technology through to its conclusion and look at Formula E, you have no noise and ultimately no drivers. The cars my children ‘drive’ will almost certainly be autonomous – but F1 remains man and machine at the limit of physics. It needs to be noisy, entertaining, almost like modern-day chariot racing. It needs to make people think, ‘I couldn’t do that’. That’s F1’s appeal. Of course, we need to be responsible, but when you look at the current cars’ thermal efficiency, they’re phenomenal. But we’re very good at doing a very bad job of advertising that fact.”
Horner saw the writing on the wall after an encounter with the future grand prix winner
Christian Horner was just 24 years old when he decided to cut short a racing career of diminishing promise – and to this day he blames future grand prix and Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya.
Things had started brightly, Horner’s form in karting strong enough to earn a scholarship that secured him a drive in the 1992 Formula Renault UK series, in which he finished fourth overall after a fruitful rookie season including victory at Pembrey.
He graduated to British Formula 3, albeit in the subsidiary division for older cars, and five class victories put him second in the standings behind the highly rated Jamie Spence. Promotion to the F3 mainstream did not produce the same results, however, and the next two seasons yielded only a brace of sixth places, both at Pembrey.
After a partial campaign in the fading British Formula 2 Championship, he set up his own small team – Arden – to compete internationally in F3000 in 1997 (buying a truck from an Austrian named Helmut Marko, about whom he knew nothing). That first season was tough, Horner failing to qualify several times, though it ended with a point for sixth place in the chaotic Jerez finale. Then came pre-season preparations for 1998 and a test in Estoril, Portugal.
“It’s a proper balls-out circuit,” he says. “I’d just come out of the pits and Montoya flew past me into Turn 1. I remember seeing his outside rear tyre trying to tear itself off the rim, the car at an angle it shouldn’t have been at, Juan totally committed, a guardrail close on the left, with little, if any, run-off. I just recall thinking, ‘I can’t do that – and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.’ I had some kind of self-preservation built in that wouldn’t even allow me to try. I knew there and then that it would be my last season as a driver.”
Born: 16/11/1973, Leamington Spa, England 1992 Moves from karts to Formula Renault UK after winning scholarship; one win 1993 British F3 Class B; five wins, second in championship 1994 British F3; 17th 1995 British F3; 16th 1996 part-season in British F2, fifth 1997-98 sets up Arden to contest FIA F3000 Championship; sixth at Jerez in 1997. Decides to retire from racing after 1998 to focus on running the team 1999-2004 Arden contests F3000, winning titles with Björn Wirdheim (2003) and Vitantonio Liuzzi (2004); champion team 2002-04 2005 Appointed team principal of Red Bull, which takes over assets of Jaguar. Has held the position ever since, overseeing four straight world title doubles with Sebastian Vettel (2009-13)