Christian Horner pauses for a few seconds when asked if Red Bull’s rivalry with Mercedes has ever, in his view, become too personal. His own rivalry with Toto Wolff reached such extremes last season that the Austrian accused him of being a “windmill that just wants to be on camera”. While he loves riots, he describes the emotional reactions of his primordial hostility – embraced by Wolff’s fury as Max Verstappen snatched the world title from Lewis Hamilton in the final lap in Abu Dhabi – which does not look like seen at 17 as head of the Formula 1 team.
“To be honest with you, I just tried to stay true to our values, keep our heads down and do the best job we could,” says Horner. “But you could see it was boiling in the next garage in some cases. This is something I have not seen against any other competitor. “I have fought with Ross Brawn, Stefano Domenicali, Ron Dennis, Flavio Briatore and never, but I have never seen such a reaction.”
Today, relative peace prevails in its corner of the Montreal mantra, which aligns with the shores of the city’s Olympic rowing lake at Ile Notre-Dame. It is unlikely that there will be any slang races here between Horner and Wolff, simply because Mercedes, already 138 points behind Red Bull after eight races, has disappeared from the league equation. On the contrary, Horner’s biggest fight this season is with Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto, a fancy technocrat who diligently avoids any public confrontation.
Pressed on how this rivalry differs, he acknowledges: “It’s limited to being on the right track, which is healthy. That’s how it should be. Last year it turned into a lot of off-track politicization and other things in the background. “It’s a lot less personal now.”
Not that Horner has lost his own cult of personality. Whether because of his optimistic side, his marriage to a former Spice Girl, or the evolution of his character in Drive to Survive, the hugely successful series that has raised his profile in North America, he rarely wants to get attention. Indeed, several Horner fan clubs have begun to form – “the Hornettes”, one is called. “This is the Netflix phenomenon for you,” he smiles.
Some consider Horner to be too thirsty for publicity. Wolff, tired of the challenge, once said: “It’s easy to be dynamic when you’re over time. “You should be a little more modest, I think.” Where a figure like Binotto is content to remain an undiscovered presence on the pit wall, Horner is always at the forefront of pushing his team’s case. “Part of my job is to protect the team, to protect the drivers,” he explains. “Sometimes it means that I will put things in such a way as to relieve that pressure from them. That’s what I consider to be my role. “
Rarely was he as vocal as during last December’s stunning climax at Yas Marina, calling on then-race director Michael Masi to ask why the cars spinning between Hamilton and Verstappen could not be removed after the fatal accident of Nicholas Latifi. It was an intervention that worked wonders: the cars were able to be properly unlocked, leaving Verstappen in first place to scan Hamilton with fresher tires. And yet, so controversial was the decision and so fierce was Mercedes’ anger that Masi ended up losing his job, a result that Horner clearly sympathizes with.
“There is no substitute for experience sometimes,” he says. “Michael was an experienced guy and he was in a difficult position because he had so much weight on his shoulders. “With more support, life could be much easier for him.”
As dizzying and euphoric as Verstappen’s triumph was, Horner was privately concerned about whether Red Bull could maintain its momentum through one of the most dramatic F1 regulations updates in 40 years. They were the last of all the teams to focus on developing the radically redesigned car of the season, but here, in view of the Canadian Grand Prix, they are at the top of both the driver and manufacturer rankings for the first time since 2013.
“If you had said, in eight games, that we would have won six of them and led to both leagues, I do not think I would have ever believed you,” Horner thinks. “Ferrari made these regulations very early. And Mercedes was talking about its change. This has always been a concern for us, that we had lost a lot of weight last year. Would we start with the back foot? We relied on very creative thinking and pure hard work. It was an amazing upset. “
Crucial to this success is chief designer Adrian Newey, whom Domenicali, F1’s chief executive, has announced as the latest true “genius” in the sport. A brilliant technical mind who continues to draw his visions with a typical pencil, Newey helped create a Red Bull car that not only has a clear racing edge, but shows no sign of the difficulties plaguing Mercedes. “Adrian plays a key role,” Horner admits. “But the collective effort was enormous.”
Through it all, Verstappen drove with ominous power, bringing the kind of victories from lights to a flag that was Hamilton’s share in the trade. While the Dutchman initially argued that anything other than the shocking scenes in Abu Dhabi would be a bonus, there is no misunderstanding his desire to consolidate his place in the pantheon with many titles. “Having this World Cup was a burden on his shoulders,” says Horner. “But it has also sparked even greater determination. He has the advantage of experience and of facing moments of great pressure. He’s just a very hungry driver. Victory is like an addiction. “Once you experience it, you do not want to let it go.”
Sergio Perez, who has just signed a two-year contract extension as a teammate of Verstappen, may have little doubt about his cast as the No. 2 driver. Eyebrows were raised in Baku last weekend when Horner told the couple, “No to fights.” His instructions sounded suspiciously like group orders, although he insists he was just trying to avoid a repeat of the Red Bull nightmare on the same track in 2018, when Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo clashed.
“I would not say it was a group order. There was a clear shift of pace between the two, so it made no sense for either driver to hit wheels with each other and risk a possible 1-2. There is a mistake and you are in a concrete dam. It was not “Leave the post”. It was “Do not put it on a wall.”
Verstappen’s path to greatness is guaranteed. Horner wishes he had shown more grace than Mercedes for his achievement six months ago, that at least one of her team had appeared on the Abu Dhabi podium to congratulate him. But he is adamant, in an increasingly dominant season for his protagonist, that he has changed page. “Life is too short to endure evil or to look back,” he says. “The trophy is in the cabinet. The point is, I’ll keep it there now. “