Column: Horner dodges through messy F1 opening amid leaked evidence, Verstappen’s father, fan flames

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, left, Red Bull co-owner Chalerm Yoovidhya and his wife Daranee, center, speak with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands during the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, Saturday, March 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, left, Red Bull co-owner Chalerm Yoovidhya and his wife Daranee, center, speak with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands during the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, Saturday, March 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Christian Horner said midway through his Red Bull internal investigation that it was ” business as normal ” for the Formula 1 team and star of “Drive to Survive,” and he wasn’t kidding.

Horner in one race weekend alone gave Netflix an entire season of material in what could be the performance of his lifetime. Cleared by Red Bull last week on allegations of misconduct levied against him by a team employee, he moved on to the season-opening race in Bahrain.

Horner has denied wrongdoing from the start, but just when he thought the matter was closed, a trove of alleged evidence against him was sent from a generic email address to more than 100 F1 industry members during the middle of the second practice for the opening race. The authenticity of the files has not been verified by The Associated Press.

He didn’t flinch, walking hand in hand with his wife, former pop star Geri Halliwell, through the paddock. The two even shared a kiss before the start of Saturday’s race.

Then Red Bull Racing does what it does best: totally dominated the field.

Horner celebrated below the podium with Red Bull co-owner Chalerm Yoovidhya. On Instagram, he posted a five-picture carousel that included photos showing Horner next to Yoovidhya, hugging car designer Adrian Newey and another team member, a hug with winner Max Verstappen and an image of him and wife “Ginger Spice.”

“What a weekend. The perfect start to the season,” Horner wrote. “To our stakeholders, our illustrious partners and everyone here in Bahrain, thank you for your unending support and commitment to get us off to the best possible start.”

Is that, like, it?

Apparently not if Verstappen’s father gets his way.

The soap opera since Feb. 5 has been Red Bull’s investigation against Horner and it has been tabloid-level salacious. Red Bull has refused to even discuss what was being looked into, and it won’t reveal the internal report that exonerated Horner despite demands for transparency from future engine partner Ford, which twice in writing has pushed the energy drink maker for answers.

Formula One Management, series owner Liberty Media Co. and governing body FIA have said next to nothing despite calls from rival team principals Toto Wolff of Mercedes and Zak Brown of McLaren for transparency.

Oracle and Visa, the title sponsors of Red Bull’s two F1 teams, have not said a word publicly the entire time. A Ford executive at the NASCAR race in Las Vegas refused to say if the company was satisfied with Red Bull’s transparency, which so far has consisted of a statement that basically said there was nothing to see here at all.

“Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial,” wrote Red Bull, which noted the accuser can appeal. “The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned. Red Bull will continue striving to meet the highest workplace standards.”

And that’s all Red Bull believes there is to it, even as FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem told the Financial Times the controversy surrounding Horner is ” damaging the sport. “

Well, Jos Verstappen has finally publicly stepped in.

They don’t call Max’s dad and Michael Schumacher’s onetime teammate “Jos the Boss” for nothing — the man infamously once threw his then-young son out of the car to walk several miles home following an unsatisfactory on-track performance. There’s been open gossip that Jos Verstappen is involved in the push to rid Red Bull Racing of Horner, and hours after the 55th win of his son’s career, he told The Daily Mail the team “will explode” if Horner is not removed.

“There is tension here while he remains in position,” Mail Sport quoted Jos Verstappen as saying. ”The team is in danger of being torn apart. It can’t go on the way it is. It will explode. He is playing the victim, when he is the one causing the problems.”

The beef between Horner and Verstappen’s father is anybody’s guess.

So now what?

Red Bull on Sunday denied any strife within the team, saying in a statement: “There are no issues here. The team are united and we are focused on racing.”

And so it’s on to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix next weekend, and before Jos Verstappen’s outburst, attention already had shifted to rivals throwing in the towel toward Red Bull after just one race in a record-long 24-race F1 season.

This Horner mess might actually go away.

The FIA isn’t investigating him, citing a lack of any complaints filed to the governing body against Horner’s conduct. F1 and Liberty seem hands off, as has Red Bull’s top American-based sponsors with the exception of Ford. Most seem resigned that Red Bull’s parent company refuses to release its internal report.

It is at this stage just a human resources issue for Red Bull, a company owned 49% out of Austria and 51% by the Yoovidhya family. Horner put a show in Bahrain by mingling with the son of the Thai pharmacist and Red Bull’s recipe-making co-founder; it has been speculated that Yoovidhya supports the longest-serving team principal in F1 as Austria management is looking for ways to oust Horner.

Horner ensured he and Halliwell put on a united front for the paparazzi; his wife has been a fixture at most F1 races since their 2015 marriage. The tabloids have said the alleged leak of evidence against Horner occurred as she was already on her way to Bahrain.

She seemed unbothered at the track, and so has Horner, who unflinchingly has maintained his role as boss the last messy month. It is clear — if by nothing else, Jos Verstappen’s postrace quotes — that someone wants Horner gone.

Horner doesn’t care.

“I am not going to comment on what motives whatever person may have for doing this. My focus is on this team, my family, my wife and going racing,” Horner said in Bahrain. “I have the support of an incredible family, an incredible wife and an incredible team and everybody within that team. And my focus is on going racing, winning races and doing the best I can.”

He noted again he’d been exonerated by his bosses, and it seems headed toward a quiet thud of all this noise surrounding Horner. The team won 21 of 22 races last year, Verstappen has three consecutive driver championships and Red Bull went 1-2 to open 2024.

“Better to do your talking on the track,” Horner surmised.

We’ll see if this spotlight on Horner really goes away, and if Verstappen can move the attention toward competition through weekly routs in outcomes already predicted. Red Bull’s image seems bruised, at minimum, but at Horner’s success rate, maybe that doesn’t matter.

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