red bull racing

The Running of the Bulls: In Conversation With Christian Horner

As team principal at one of F1's powerhouse teams, and with a stellar young driver line-up to manage, Christian Horner has plenty to keep him occupied at Red Bull Racing. We sat down to discuss his past, present and future in the sport.

by Jim Weeks
Oct 31 2016, 5:17pm

Photo by Patrick J. Barrett

"I'm probably unemployable in any other area," says Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner when asked what his career options might be should he ever walk away from Formula 1. "I've grown up in motorsport since I was 12 or 13 years of age; I've never been on a management training course. I had an agreement with my parents that I could take a year out before going to university – I still haven't gone, so maybe I could try that?"

But it's unlikely that Horner will be showing up at any freshers' fayres in the next few years. Firmly ensconced as team principal at one of Formula 1's powerhouse teams – and with a stellar young driver line-up to push them forwards – there should be little to tempt him away from grand prix racing. With four drivers' and four contractors' world championships won under his leadership, he holds considerable respect within the sport. And, given the breadth of his role at the team, he'll struggle to find the time to even consider a career change.

Speaking in his office at the Red Bull Racing factory ahead of back-to-back grands prix in the U.S. and Mexico, Horner is more than happy with how the 2016 season has unfolded. "We expected to be struggling to get into the top-five in the constructors' championship," he says, and so their current position – almost certain of runner-up spot, the only challengers to the dominant Mercedes team – represents "an incredible year for us".

Photo by Patrick J. Barrett

Horner speaks in the slow and considered manner of someone who knows that choosing the correct words at the correct moment is vital to survival in F1. You might compare him with a politician in this respect, but you could also draw parallels with elder team bosses, such as Frank Williams and Ron Dennis – though perhaps with less fondness for the corporate speak Ron has become famous for.

Horner initially tried his luck as a driver. He had a modest junior career in which it is fair to say that his ambition eventually exceeded his talent. Two years racing for his own Arden team in Formula 3000 – then F1's official junior series – yielded just one point. He elected to step out of the cockpit, but was by no means finished.

READ MORE: In Conversation With Max Verstappen

These days Horner makes light of his driving abilities, but it's worth noting that he was competing against some legit talents in F3000, including a future Monaco Grand Prix and Indy 500 winner in Juan Pablo Montoya, and perhaps the greatest Le Mans driver of all time in Tom Kristensen. If you can simply qualify for a race that Montoya is starting on pole, you're clearly no fool.

The driving career ended but Arden continued, with Horner – still in his mid-twenties – now a full-time boss. Results improved, and in 2002 Arden were teams champions. In 2003 they retained that title and won the drivers' crown with Björn Wirdheim. The following year they once again did the double, this time with Tonio Liuzzi taking top spot.

Photo by Patrick J. Barrett

Horner's F3000 success came at an opportune moment. After more than a decade as a sponsor, energy drink giants Red Bull had decided to take the plunge into full-blown team ownership, buying up the floundering Jaguar team and re-branding them as Red Bull Racing. Horner went on to lead them to four successive triumphs in both the drivers' and constructors' championships.

At heart a "marketing exercise", the team has tended to promote a youthful image. Hiring Horner fitted this mould: when he was appointed to the role in 2005, he was only 31 years of age. To put this into perspective, five drivers on the F1 grid that year were older – one of whom was Red Bull's own David Coulthard – while some of his fellow bosses would have been twice his age. This, however, was not of much significance to Horner.

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"I've always felt that age is just a number – it's not how old or how young you are, it's how you conduct yourself. I mean, most of the engineers I was working with [in 2005] were older than me as well. But I didn't see that as a barrier.

"And we see it today with someone like Max Verstappen. He's 19 years old – he can't even rent a hire car in the UK, but the way he conducts himself belies his age."

Verstappen is an inevitable topic of discussion. The teenager is perhaps the hottest (and at times most controversial) property in F1 right now, having won his first grand prix after stepping up to the senior Red Bull team in Spain. He's since scored five more podiums and is widely viewed as a future champion.

Verstappen stunned F1 by winning his first race as a Red Bull Racing driver // Red Bull Content Pool

But Verstappen is not currently the form man in the Red Bull squad. His teammate, Australia's Daniel Ricciardo, continues to prove himself to be an elite grand prix driver, recently winning the Malaysian Grand Prix. Between these two, Red Bull have one of the best line-ups in Formula 1, and certainly possess the most long-term potential. Horner knows he has it good.

"Obviously there's an age gap between them [Ricciardo is 27, Verstappen 19], but what's extremely common between the two is their natural ability [and] their tremendous natural speed. They've got a very good feel for what's going on in the car; they understand what's affecting performance; and, like any great drivers, they have a spare capacity to deal with what's going on around them. They're not consumed in extracting the most from the car: they're able to take in what's going on, whether that be race strategy, tyre degradation, [or] what competitors are up to during a grand prix. And that really marks them out as very special talents."

Horner's challenge is to extract the maximum from each man while keeping unnecessary conflict to a minimum. The potential for friction between these two is obvious: both are young, hugely talented, and extremely hungry to succeed. At 27 Ricciardo will already sense that the clock is ticking – F1 is a young man's sport – and has visibly raised his game since Verstappen arrived at the team in May.

Horner has prior experience of managing a tense intra-team relationship: there were numerous flare ups between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber when the pair were leading Red Bull's charge between 2009 and 2013. How does the man in charge keep things civil?

Webber and Vettel were hugely successful as teammates, but their relationship often required managing // PA Images

"Effectively, the drivers are conflicted," says Horner with the familiarity of a man who has presented this case many times before. "They're contracted to the team, and from the team's perspective the [constructors'] championship represents the most important element. The money we get from the sport is purely dependent on where we are in that championship.

"And then the drivers' championship – which is perhaps where the prestige is – is an individual challenge. And of course, if you've got two drivers competing within a team for that ultimate glory, then it does become slightly conflicted.

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"The way that I operate is to try and be as transparent as possible, so that they feel listened to, believed in and trusted, and that their value to the team is equal. We've always said that it doesn't say "Daniel Ricciardo Racing" or "Max Verstappen Racing" – it says Red Bull Racing.

"The details we go to include alternating from weekend to weekend who talks first in the briefing, and who drives out the garage first in qualifying... so that the drivers don't feel one is getting preferential treatment. We're very clear in the race that priority will be given to the lead car and more risk will be taken with the tail car. Sometimes that will work out, sometimes it won't, but it's very clear going into the event that those are the rules of engagement."

Though it may sometimes seem as though keeping driver conflict to a minimum is his sole job, Horner's role at the team is considerably wider in scope. Most often seen on the pitwall, much of his work is in fact carried out behind the scenes.

Photo by Patrick J. Barrett

"I have two jobs, effectively. One is at 21 grands prix a year where I'm running a high-performance sports team with a very clear chain of command; we're very much like a military operation at those events. And then from Monday to Friday I'm running a multi-faceted business that has all the pressures of a commercial business in terms of production, planning, research and development, and the logistical challenges of a 21-race calendar.

"So they're two quite different roles, and challenging in their own respects. One of the interesting parts of what I do is the variation from day to day.

"[During a grand prix] I'll sit in most of the briefings, keeping a handle on which route the weekend is taking, particularly in regard to the strategic approach – the strategy for qualifying and particularly the strategy for the race. On top of that, I'm dealing with the relationship of the drivers individually and collectively, and ensuring that the team are all focussed on the same goals. Of course there are other distractions that I have to deal with as well, whether it's FIA meetings, commercial, sponsorship appearances and of course dealing with the media – so you end up performing a lot of different functions."

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The recent sale of Formula 1 to the Liberty Media Corporation has led to much speculation about the direction the sport should take in the coming years. Horner's position – an F1 veteran, leading a top team – means his opinions are likely to be sought out. Some have even highlighted him as a candidate to replace Bernie Ecclestone – including the man himself.

Regardless of who is in charge, there is an increasing feeling that grand prix racing must appeal to a younger audience, something Horner is on board with.

"One of the challenges is to engage with a younger viewership. I think what's encouraging is the plans of the new ownership to open up some of the digital platforms that a younger generation live by. I think that's an exciting opportunity. We see that already with Max: he operates his life like any teenager, [spending] most of his time on a mobile phone.

Image via Red Bull Content Pool

"The Red Bull perspective is different from an automotive manufacturer, where there is a kickback into their [road car] product," he continues. "If you're Red Bull, it's a marketing exercise and it's all about engagement with the fans and the consumer. So of course that engagement is hugely important for us. And I think that's a key area moving forward – hopefully it will become more engaging, more interactive."

Horner also echoes the kind of views put forward by F1 purists, who wish to see the sport recapture some of its simplicity and retain a sense of risk.

"I think Formula 1 needs to put on a great show," he says. "It's show business and it needs to be close, it needs to be competitive. It needs to be man and machine at the absolute limit – this is modern day chariot racing, and there has to be an element of danger in that. It has to be a spectacle."

READ MORE: Collision & Collusion – The Story of the 1997 F1 Title Decider

2017 will see a series of technical changes in F1 that are predicted to shake up the competitive order. The same happened three years ago, when new engine regulations resulted in a period of Red Bull dominance ending and Mercedes becoming the sport's ruling team. In an effort to reverse that, Horner says, "the majority of the [Red Bull] factory is heavily focussed on research and development of the 2017 car."

If Red Bull can return to the very front, the intra-team battle between Ricciardo and Verstappen has the potential to produce serious fireworks. Horner would have his work cut out trying to manage two such competitive drivers should anything resembling a title battle break out between them.

But that is a problem that comes with his job – and, for someone in Horner's position, it's a nice problem to have.

@Jim_Weeks