Christian Horner: life in the fast lane

Jeremy Taylor

9 July 2019

Where does F1 team principal Christian Horner go to escape the pressure of the pit lane? Luxury London meets the Red Bull Racing boss

9 July 2019 | Jeremy Taylor

Christian Horner is the brains behind Aston Martin Red Bull Racing. He has guided the Formula One team to four Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships in a row, and received an OBE for services to motorsport in 2013.

One of the most highly respected figures in F1, Horner became the sport’s youngest team principal when he joined newly-formed Red Bull Racing in 2005. Together with chief technical officer, Adrian Newey, the pair have amassed 59 victories and finished third in the 2018 Constructors’ Championship.

Despite being robbed of a podium finish at this year’s Monaco Grand Prix, Red Bull’s Honda-powered car is now starting to show serious promise. Driver Max Verstappen is regarded as one of the hottest talents on the grid, although the team’s new engine is yet to match those of Mercedes or Ferrari.

Team mate Pierre Gasly is unlikely to beat Verstappen for pace but is catching up fast. The French driver was brought into the team by Horner, following the shock departure of Daniel Ricciardo to Renault at the end of the 2018 season.

Married to Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, Horner lives in a sprawling farmhouse not far from Banbury. The Oxfordshire mansion includes a boating lake, a tennis court and a menagerie of animals. The 45-year-old is stepfather to Halliwell’s daughter, Bluebell Madonna, 13, and the couple have a two-year-old son together, named Montague.

How difficult is it to escape the frantic pace of your Grand Prix lifestyle? I don’t mind being in the limelight on a grand prix weekend but not the rest of the time. We’ve lived in this place for about four years and it’s become the perfect home to relax in and get away from it all. My son, Monty, loves to ride his toy tractor around the place and in the house. Restoring the farm has been my hobby – the way I put racing out of my mind. The main house is finished but now the barns are being converted. We’re currently putting the finishing touches to an indoor swimming pool, which is meant to be ready for the British Grand Prix weekend next month.

How did you catch the automotive bug? My grandfather was head of purchasing at the Standard Motor Company in Coventry and then set up his own agency, supplying parts. Dad joined him and they had a very successful business. I went to school in Leamington Spa and we lived in Bishop’s Itchington, not far from Gaydon. There were always lots of interesting cars on the driveway. Dad had a Reliant Scimitar, a Triumph Stag and a Jaguar XJS. My two brothers and I were always urging him to go faster. Mum drove a Triumph Herald and later, an Alpine sports car.

When did your own driving career start? When I was 11, my parents looked at a new house and there was a go-kart in the garage. The people selling the house promised they would leave it but didn’t. After we moved in, I plagued my mother and we found a go-kart for sale in the local paper for £60. It was an ancient racing kart with slick tyres and had no traction on our slippery fields, so Dad took me to an old airfield and from that moment on I was hooked. All I wanted to be was a racing driver.

When did you learn to drive on the road? At midnight on my 17th birthday, Mum and I were at the bottom of the driveway waiting to go out on the road with L-plates. I had an old Volkswagen Beetle with spoilers and a side exhaust – it looked seriously cool. That evening, I drove the family out to my birthday dinner and on the way home, they all fell asleep in the car. I passed my test two weeks later.

You won a Formula Renault scholarship in 1991, had a successful career in British Formula Two and Formula 3000, and you had your own team – Arden. Why didn’t you make the step up to F1 as a driver? I remember the moment vividly. I was pre-season racing at Estoril in Portugal. There is a very fast right hander coming out of the pits and Juan Montoya shot past me. The barrier is very close at that point and if you come off it’s a big accident. I watched the rim of his wheel trying to pop out the rear tyre under the pressure of cornering and I knew I couldn’t drive like that. That’s when I decided to concentrate on running my team instead.

You retired from racing at 25, partnered with Prodrive for a season and then joined Red Bull, becoming the youngest team principal at the age of 31. Was this a memorable moment? It was a big moment in my life but also felt like a natural progression. All the principles that served me well building my Formula 3000 team I applied to F1. At the end of the day, people are your biggest asset – the right technicians, engineers and drivers. I was a big Adrian Newey fan and when he left McLaren to join us, people stood up and took notice. If you are going to shoot for the stars, you need somebody like Adrian. Persuading him to sign with us was a major step forward.

The Red Bull team finished strongly in 2009 and then won the Constructor’s and Drivers’ Championships in 2010 with Sebastien Vettel and Mark Webber. How did you celebrate that first of four consecutive victories? Adrian and I both bought an Aston Martin Vantage. It was the first real present I had afforded myself. The V12 is a fantastic car to drive: loads of power and it also sounds amazing. For my 40th birthday, I took delivery of an Aston Martin DB5, another iconic motor. I also own an AC Cobra and two Minis that originally belonged to Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Geri gave me a Willys jeep for my birthday, and I tracked down her old MGB Roadster for her present. She bought the MG with her first pay cheque from the Spice Girls.

How hard was it losing Daniel Ricciardo at the end of last season? Very, very difficult. If I take my Red Bull hat off, he is a friend. He was the perfect fit for Red Bull and I didn’t understand his decision-making to move to Renault. He grew up with Red Bull and had no idea what life would be like outside of that world. I think he was quite surprised when Mercedes and Ferrari didn’t come calling, then Renault made him a significant offer. His decision demonstrated how keen he was to try something else and take a risk. It will be interesting to see what he thinks of that decision at the end of the season.

Give us your thoughts on Lewis Hamilton: friend or foe? Lewis is an enigma. A wonderful, gifted driver. He’s a total natural and his achievements in the sport are phenomenal. He’s very much a Marmite character – people love him, or loathe him. I have huge respect for what he has done, the talent he has and what he has achieved. He has done it in his own way with the lifestyle he leads. He turns up at a Grand Prix and delivers, nobody can question that. He is a true sporting great.

How do you feel about being touted as the next Bernie Ecclestone, running F1 in the future? It’s very flattering when people make that connection. At the moment, I very much enjoy the competitive side of my career. I’m really focused on wanting to achieve more with Red Bull and get us back to a winning situation. Nobody has a crystal ball – 10 years down the road I might feel differently. I do have a West Highland Terrier called Bernie, though.

Who is the best driver ever? It’s very difficult to gauge people like Juan Manuel Fangio and Jackie Stewart against modern drivers. However, the one who has stood out for me is Ayrton Senna. I met him when I was a young kart racer. I snuck under the fence at Silverstone on a test day and hung about at the back of his garage. He spotted my karting jacket and came over for a chat. He was so enthused about karting, very polite and interested in what I was doing. There was an aura around him – it was a special moment I shall always remember.

Do you see Formula E (FE) challenging F1 at any point? Formula E has its place but I don’t think that ultimately it will compete because F1 is escapism in many respects. It is modern-day chariot racing. FE will end up with autonomous cars and no need for drivers, if it follows through to a natural conclusion. First and foremost, F1 is the purest entertainment, man and machine at the absolute limit.

Christian Horner is team principal of Aston Martin Red Bull Racing,