the crisis at Red Bull, its reasons and its consequences

Paris (AFP) – Red Bull and its driver Max Verstappen are still crushing Formula 1, but the Austrian team, undermined by internal fights, could itself be its main opponent this season.

Published on: 03/18/2024 – 6:08 p.m. Modified on: 03/18/2024 – 6:06 p.m.

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Beyond the “Horner affair”, named after the team boss recently weakened by accusations of “inappropriate behavior” towards an employee, what are the sporting risks and economic issues of this crisis?

What is the “Horner affair”?

On February 5, the Dutch daily De Telegraaf revealed that Christian Horner, the historic boss of the team, is the subject of an internal investigation into accusations of “inappropriate behavior” made by a team employee. Accusations that the person concerned refutes, in the civil case of the ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell.

On February 28, the internal investigation cleared Horner, a decision he welcomed, just before the first Grand Prix of the season in Bahrain. But the case is not closed, relaunched the next day by an email sent by an anonymous sender. Impossible to verify, these would be WhatsApp exchanges between Horner and his accuser, who was suspended on March 7 by Red Bull. “A complaint was made, it was examined closely and it was rejected. From there, we must move on,” Horner simply responded.

Several team directors, notably the Austrian Toto Wolff (Mercedes) and the American Zak Brown (McLaren) denounced the lack of transparency in the management of this affair. Red Bull invokes the imperatives of respect for private life.

Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner during the qualifying session for the Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche circuit in Jeddah, March 7, 2024 © Giuseppe CACACE / AFP

The employee concerned, suspended at the end of the investigation, is said to have appealed the findings internally and has also, according to the BBC, contacted the International Automobile Federation (FIA), the supreme authority of the discipline.

What power issues?

In the background of this affair, two clans are engaged in a struggle for influence with high financial stakes, according to observers. On one side, the camp of the “Austrians”, notably the influential special advisor Helmut Marko, and the management of the parent company Red Bull, notably Mark Mateschitz, son of the co-founder of Red Bull, Dietrich Mateschitz, who died at the end of 2022. He owns 49% of the company and the stable. The latter have the support of the Verstappen clan, Max, his father Jos, and the driver’s agent, Raymond Vermeulen.

Opposite, the clan of Christian Horner, who has led the team for 19 years and has been very successful (seven world drivers’ titles and six manufacturers’ crowns). Appreciated in the team, the Briton is supported by Chalerm Yoovidhya, son of the other co-founder of Red Bull, Chaleo Yoovidhya, and majority shareholder of the energy drink giant and the F1 team with 51% of the shares .

Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner, his wife, British singer Geri Halliwell, ChalermYoovidhya attend the podium ceremony of the Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on March 2, 2024 © ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP

Subdued until then, this fight came to light in Bahrain: Jos Verstappen attacked Horner just after his son’s victory. “There is tension (in the team) as long as he remains in place. The team risks tearing itself apart. It cannot continue like this. It will explode,” he then asserted.

A departure of Horner could also precipitate the flight of several major elements of the team, for example the brilliant engineer Adrian Newey, designer of the Red Bull single-seaters, who however rejected the idea of ​​a short-term departure, or the French technical director Pierre Waché.

What future for Verstappen?

Under contract until the end of 2028, will triple world champion Max Verstappen stay if Christian Horner is reinforced at the head of the team?

Max Verstappen, and his father, Jos Verstapp, after the F1 United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2022 in Austin, Texas © Jared C. Tilton / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP

When Helmut Marko suggested that he could be suspended by Red Bull, Max Verstappen linked his fate in the team to that of the Austrian. “ I have always said in the team, to high-ranking people, that he played an important part in all my decision-making and for my future in the team, so it is very important that he stays », Said the Dutch pilot.

« Max is an important member of our team. He is a wonderful driver (…) but no one is more important than the team », For his part declared Horner after the Dutchman’s victory in Jeddah, second Grand Prix of the season. “ If a driver doesn’t want to be somewhere, he’ll go somewhere else, but I don’t see why anyone would want to leave this team ».

Several teams, notably Mercedes, are undoubtedly dreaming of securing Verstappen’s services. “ I would love to have it, but first we need to upgrade the car », Underlined in Jeddah the director of the German team, Toto Wolff. Mercedes has a seat available from 2025 after the departure of seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton to Ferrari.


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