Christian Horner: "Mercedes have been pretty much unbeatable – until now"

Jeremy Taylor

21 October 2021

As Formula One rolls into the Circuit of The Americas in Austin for the United States Grand Prix, the Team Principal of Red Bull Racing discusses what happened in Monza, where and when the championship will be decided, and closing in on constructor title rivals Mercedes

“Next season will be a clean sheet of paper for everyone… Usually somebody finds a different interpretation of the rules and gets a head start – you just hope it’s your team”

21 October 2021 | Jeremy Taylor

T

his year, Formula 1 has become a battle royale between two drivers with completely different temperaments: Lewis Hamilton versus Max Verstappen. The seven-time world champion versus the blossoming superstar. Just a handful of points separate the two fastest drivers on the track as Red Bull and Mercedes compete for the 2021 title.

With just a handful of races left in this year’s see-sawing championship and both drivers engaged in wheel-to-wheel confrontations, the coolest man in the pit lane appears to be Red Bull Team Principal, Christian Horner.

Red Bull was the dominant force in the sport from 2010 to 2013, winning four consecutive titles with Sebastien Vettel. Since then, Mercedes has swept the board. The team’s sprawling headquarters on an industrial estate near Milton Keynes, however, is a hive of activity as it prepares for a raft of regulation changes in 2022. From the end of this season, Red Bull will start building engines in-house, too. Horner says the last seven years have been difficult, but finally, he has started to pile the pressure on Mercedes.

The 2021 Formula 1 World Championship has provided perhaps the most exciting season in a decade. Where do you expect the title to be decided?

Normally by this stage of the season the championship has been wrapped up. Not this year. I hope it doesn’t go to the final race in Abu Dhabi on 12 December but I think it’s inevitable. This championship will go to the wire, which is great for F1 but not much good for my sleep pattern.

At what point during the current season did you realise that the gloves were well and truly off?

The British Grand Prix at Silverstone in July – when Max and Lewis crashed on the first lap. I don’t think many people realise the severity of a crash like that at over 200mph. It was brutal. Max impacted at 51G – it actually broke the seat of his car. He was momentarily knocked out and we couldn’t reach him on the team radio. Your immediate focus is on the health of your driver. Anybody in F1 knows Copse is a high-speed corner, one of the most dangerous in the sport. In that moment I realised what we were up against.

Then it happened again at Monza in September…

That accident was less dangerous. It looked dramatic but the speed of impact was much lower. Max’s car just flicked in the air but, thankfully, both guys were okay.

What about the rivalry with your Mercedes equivalent, Toto Wolff?

I don’t pay much attention to the Toto situation, even if the media likes to build it up. The intensity of the competition is so fierce that one mistake could cost either team the title. This is also the first time Mercedes has been under this level of pressure in seven seasons – it will be interesting to see how they deal with that. Toto and I are not similar characters. He is a financial guy and I grew up in the industry. It doesn’t make one right or the other one wrong but we are very different people. We have a handful of races to go, varying circuits around the world, the situation is very exciting, even for the impartial F1 fan.

Next season will see big changes to the cars. The most significant difference being aerodynamic, with the return to the ground-effect formula that allows underbody tunnels – a feature not used in F1 since the 1980s. How will that impact the sport?

Not relying on wings for downforce reduces the ‘dirty air’ effect, which currently prevents following drivers from getting too close to the car in front. Making the cars easier to follow will promote overtaking and is a totally different philosophy to what we have now. The governing body is ripping up everything we have done for the past five years and imposing budget caps to help the smaller teams. It’s a clean sheet of paper for everyone. Some will get it right and others won’t. It will be fascinating to see the first tests in Spain before the season starts. Usually somebody finds a different interpretation of the rules and gets a head start – you just hope it’s your team.

Honda will stop providing engines to Red Bull from the end of this season and leave F1 for good. How are your preparations going for the new season?

Red Bull Powertrains is a new company based at the Milton Keynes campus, increasing our payroll here to almost 1,000 people. We spend a lot of time on engineering issues because the engine is the heart of any car. It’s non-stop meetings throughout the day, either face-to-face or via video call. Building our own units in-house is a significant step and will make us masters of our own destiny from 2022 onwards.

This is your 17th season in Formula 1. How much has the sport changed since you joined the newly-formed Red Bull in 2005? 

When I arrived, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Moseley were still running the show. Ron Dennis was at McLaren, Jean Todt was in charge at Ferrari, Frank Williams was hands on at Williams and Flavio Briatore was the boss at Renault. They were huge names but the one thing most of them shared was the ability to look beyond their own team and do what was best for the sport. They were entrepreneurs who had made their fortunes primarily from racing and recognised that the business was bigger than their individual team. So they would often talk about and support actions that didn’t necessarily benefit their own team. If Netflix had been filming then it would have been some documentary.

Did Red Bull give F1 a bit of a wake-up call? Success didn’t come overnight but you were competing against long-established rivals...

Nobody thought an energy drink-maker from Austria, with no real experience in Formula 1, stood a chance. We were up against Ferrari, McLaren and Williams. There were big characters, big egos – we were almost starting from scratch.

Have you enjoyed watching the Netflix fly-on-the-wall series, Drive to Survive?

It has given F1 a whole new audience and helped broaden the appeal of the sport in America. Mercedes didn’t get involved at the start because they wanted the series to focus solely on them, as world champions. I think they were sulking a bit for the first year – Toto didn’t think it was a good deal, it wasn’t right, blah, blah, blah. Then they saw the impact and suddenly there’s a lot more Lewis in the last two series.

A lot of sports are struggling with spectator numbers and audience figures. How’s the future of Formula 1 looking?

There’s no doubt F1 is on an upward trajectory, helped by a new festival atmosphere on grand prix weekends – as well as the ongoing battle between two drivers at opposite ends of their career paths. It was a little overwhelming when we turned up at Silverstone and the crowds were back in force for the first time. If that was exciting, when we arrived at the Dutch Grand Prix in September it was completely insane. The fans went crazy for Max and everything seemed to be painted orange. I took my wife along [Horner is married to former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell] and she said it was like being in a nightclub for three days, like being at a rock concert. She said she had never experienced anything quite like it.

Bernie Ecclestone is a great friend of yours, do you speak to him often now he has left the sport?

I usually get a call from him after every race. He still gives me plenty of grief. Bernie’s 90 now but an avid follower of the sport and not afraid to voice an opinion. I have huge respect for Bernie. I was his Best Man and he is godfather to one of my kids. He is such a big character; I talk to him a lot. I remember being in the pit lane before the start of the championship-deciding grand prix in 2010 and Bernie came over to talk to me. He leaned forward, and whispered in my ear ‘just don’t fuck it up’. That’s probably the best advice I’ve ever been given!

There were rumours a few years back that you might take over from Bernie. Are you thinking about retirement yet?

I’m only 47! And I enjoy the competition too much to consider leaving the pit lane. I am a racer at heart and always have been. There’s also so much I want to achieve in this new era of Formula One – that’s an enormous challenge and one I thrive on. We also have some unfinished business with Mercedes.

Christian Horner with Red Bull drivers Sergio Pérez (left) and Max Verstappen

Is Lewis Hamilton now the greatest driver of all time?

Statistically, he is the most successful, but I would say Ayrton Senna would be my GOAT. His career was tragically cut short and the statistics don’t reflect what his talent might have been capable of had he lived longer.

How do you remain motivated after such a long time in the sport?

When I see the trophies in the foyer of our headquarters and feel the energy and the excitement about the place, it’s a massive shot in the arm. I think the tough years of not winning battle-harden you. It makes me more determined than ever to succeed because I know the feeling of being a winner too. Mercedes have been pretty much unbeatable until now but if you keep pushing, keep believing in yourself then anything is possible.

Read more: Sir Jackie Stewart won't be stopped