‘Our determination means we’ve got a chance, a true chance, of delivering a world championship this year and we’re going to give it everything to achieve that,” Christian Horner says as, in his role as the team principal of Red Bull, he looks ahead to the final six races of the grand prix season. The travelling Formula One circus descends on Austin in Texas for this Sunday’s US Grand Prix with Max Verstappen of Red Bull leading the driver’s championship. Verstappen, who has already won seven races this year for Horner’s resurgent team, has a narrow six-point lead over Lewis Hamilton and his usually dominant Mercedes car.
The 47-year-old Horner is still among the youngest leaders in F1, despite this being his 17th season in charge of Red Bull, and he has helped his team clinch four drivers’ championships. But the last of these, with all four titles being won in successive years, was in 2013. Red Bull went through a testing seven-year period when they were out of the championship frame.
If Verstappen and Red Bull win the title this year, Horner believes “it will be our biggest achievement. If you look at the strength of Mercedes, and the dominance they’ve had, it’s clear that nobody’s come near them for years. No one has put them under this kind of pressure at this stage of the season so it will be an enormous achievement if we pull it off.”
The fascination of such a tight championship race has been deepened by the personal battle between Verstappen and Hamilton who, at 36, is the older driver by 12 years. Hamilton is hoping to break the record of championship titles – which he and Michael Schumacher share with seven each – while Verstappen is chasing his first. Off the track there is also clear antipathy between Horner and Toto Wolff, his counterpart at Mercedes, which adds to the edgy nature of a gripping contest.
Before we turn to his own spiky interaction with Wolff, Horner considers the duel between two gifted drivers. “I think, inevitably, there’s always going to be an evolution,” Horner says as he suggests that Verstappen is ready to usurp Hamilton. “Lewis has had an amazing career and he’s still in fantastic form. He’s still a titan of the sport. The fact that Max is able to go toe-to-toe with him is probably something Lewis hasn’t had throughout his career – certainly through the championship years. There’s nothing with this degree of intensity. There’s obviously a lot at stake for him as he’s going for a record-breaking eighth championship, Max is going for his first and he knows he’s got many more years to come.”
Verstappen is such a mercurial talent that he even won the first grand prix he ever raced for Red Bull – in Spain when he was still only 18 in 2016. But he has never before made such a sustained tilt at the championship. As we enter the crunch period is it now partly Horner’s role to calm Verstappen? “Of course you look to use the experience you have and it’s quite often simple things that you try to help the drivers with at certain moments. But Max knows it’s a marathon and not a sprint. He knows all that stuff because he’s got a remarkably wise head on his young shoulders.
“We just remind Max that our focus is very much on ourselves and not to get sucked into any of our competitors’ comments when they’re taking a pop at you. They’re doing that because, ultimately, they don’t have that inner confidence in themselves. It’s best to take that as a compliment.”
How did Verstappen feel when Hamilton and Damon Hill criticised him after the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September? He had tried to pass Hamilton as they entered a chicane and he ended up riding the kerbs which flipped his Red Bull on top of the world champion’s car. Hamilton stressed his life had been saved by the halo on his Mercedes and he also expressed disappointment that Verstappen hadn’t checked to see if he was OK. Hill, the former world champion, said: “It looks like it was a calculated decision by Max to take him out.”
Horner frowns. “Max was disappointed by those comments. Everybody has the right to an opinion but it’s disappointing because it absolutely wasn’t the case.” Trouble had been brewing since the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in July when Hamilton and Verstappen clashed on the first lap, at the ultra-quick Copse Corner. Hamilton would not give way and Verstappen hit the barriers at 180mph with an impact of 51G. Hamilton was given a 10-second penalty for causing a collision and Horner accused him of “desperate” and “dirty driving”.
“I think Lewis knew the risk that he was taking,” Horner says now, “and the stewards deemed him to be obviously more at fault. Unfortunately the outcome was quite skewed. We’ve written off a car, lost an engine, and he managed to go on and win the race, so there was essentially no penalty for being deemed to be at fault. But you move on. OK, it didn’t go our way that day but things tend to even themselves out over the course of the year.”
Horner and Wolff have also been sniping at each other all season. Horner has suggested that Wolff is “a control freak” who “should keep his mouth shut” while the Austrian has reacted by saying his rival at Red Bull is a “windbag who always wants to be on camera”. This elicited a wry response from Horner: “Coming from the chap who is in front of the camera more than anybody else, I thought that was quite amusing. Sometimes, when you point the finger, there are three pointing back at you.” Then, just before the Russian Grand Prix in late September, Horner said: “The more Toto gets wound up, the more fun it becomes.”
In a boardroom at the Red Bull headquarters in Milton Keynes, Horner smiles as I ask him about winding up Wolff. “I have no issue with Toto but we are very different people. I tend to be quite straight and quite direct, that’s the way I’ve always operated. He operates in a different way but I have a lot of respect for what he’s done.”
There is still clear needle between them. “It’s a competition,” Horner says, “and compared to the championship years when we were competing with Ferrari and McLaren from 2010 to 2013 this has been very different. There is an awful lot more going on behind the scenes, constant campaigning of the FIA with all aspects of our car.”
Surely he and Red Bull are campaigning just as hard? “You have to defend yourself if you come under attack as we have from the very beginning of the year – whether it was the concept of the aerodynamics with the FIA to pit stops to other aspects of the chassis, you name it.”
Has he had a chance to have a private one-to-one conversation with Wolff? Horner laughs lightly. “No. I’ve got no need to …”
Horner implies that Wolff is feeling the pressure more than him. “He came into the sport with Mercedes in 2013 and the structure was already in place. Ross Brawn had built that team. Lewis had already been signed. Toto’s done a tremendous job operating the team and maintaining their performance. But of course he’s never experienced anything other than winning. So it’s a different type of pressure now. It’s tough.”
How did Horner cope when Red Bull failed to match their old supremacy for seven years? “It was frustrating. It’s very easy to lose motivation but there was an inner determination to get back into a winning position. We’ve retained tremendous continuity during that period. You look around the engineering office now and many of the people still here were with us from 2010 to 2013. So we’ve had great continuity but we’ve also brought along another generation of talent, youth and capability.”
What caused the Red Bull dip? “I think the biggest single factor was the big engine regulation change for 2014. All engine manufacturers other than Mercedes, with Ross, had underestimated the impact. So, when we turned up in 2014, we were two years behind Mercedes. It’s taken us pretty much to this year to get to a point where we’ve got a power unit capable of going toe-to-toe with them.”
How did Horner dig himself out of that deep hole? “You can always learn from others – whether that’s internally from seeing the way that Dietrich Mateschitz [the Austrian billionaire who took a gamble in appointing the then relatively unknown Horner 17 years ago] ran Red Bull or from other sports. I’ve always been an admirer of Alex Ferguson and the longevity of success that he brought. He just kept rebuilding his team. I had great respect and admiration for him. Ron Dennis [the former team principal of McLaren], likewise. Ron was a very different personality to me but what he achieved was phenomenal. So there are always lessons to be learnt.”
Horner is married to Geri Halliwell and he suggests that his family helps refresh him. “Formula One can be consuming but I have a young family and it’s very important to find that balance and be a present father when you’re there. Obviously, with the amount of travel and all the time that I am away, the last thing that they want is for me to be constantly on the phone. I’ve got three wonderful kids. My son is four and my daughter recently turned eight and we had her birthday party last weekend. I have a 15-year-old [daughter] as well. I always try and ensure I can get back on a Sunday evening [if a grand prix is in Europe] so I can take my son to school on a Monday morning.”
A few weeks ago he and his wife were seen on the red carpet of the James Bond premiere in London. Horner laughs when I ask if he thought of Wolff whenever the Bond villain lit up the big screen. He chooses a diplomatic answer. “It was good to see Formula One well represented that night.”
There will be more spice and spikiness in the remaining six races, which will decide this epic championship battle, and Horner leans forward intently when I ask if momentum is finally shifting from Mercedes to Red Bull. “Yes. Whatever happens this year we are building something here. The whole team is loving the fact we are competitive and taking control of our own destiny with the power units in-house. We are the only team in the UK to do that and we will be the only team in Formula One, other than Ferrari, to have the engine and chassis under one roof. People will make the same comments about us only being an energy-drink outfit but the talent we’re attracting, and the youth that we’re investing in, is pushing us forward. You can feel the energy when you walk around the place. There’s an excitement, a buzz and a great hunger to succeed.”