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Christian Horner and Max Verstappen have caused controversy in the last couple of weeks (Feature Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool via Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Christian Horner and Max Verstappen have caused controversy in the last couple of weeks (Feature Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool via Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Horner and Verstappen: Pantomime villains?

Red Bull and Verstappen are now the most powerful force in F1 on and off the track. But at what cost?

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Max Verstappen and Red Bull crushed the opposition in 2022. But their journey here has seen them risk becoming stereotyped pantomime villains. 

Christian Horner and Max Verstappen celebrate their win at the Mexico City GP (Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool via Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
New villains Christian Horner and Max Verstappen celebrate their win at the Mexico City GP (Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool via Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The previous decade saw Red Bull forced into a supporting role within F1. Mercedes crushed all that lay before them. When the first opposition came to Mercedes in 2017 and 2018, it was Ferrari who rose briefly to the challenge.

However, the prancing horse stumbled due to poor race strategy, followed by an engine scandal. Held back by power units that simply could not match Mercedes or Ferrari, Red Bull could only watch.

The decision to seek an alliance with Honda in 2019 risked further distancing Red Bull from the front of the field. Instead, the choice proved inspired, propelling the Milton Keynes marquee to title glory in just three seasons.

After winning the Drivers’ title in 2021, Red Bull dominated this season to win the Constructors’ title as well as Max Verstappen’s second Drivers’ Championship. Verstappen has to date won 14 races this year, a new record in F1 excellence.

But the team’s approach is starting to have negative consequences for the Red Bull brand and F1 itself. A tough few weeks have seen Team Principal Christian Horner defending Red Bull’s actions, as he has since the start of 2021. Horner’s attacking style of management has produced ideal results so far but is now beginning to look misguided. So we ask the question, are Red Bull, Verstappen and Horner now the pantomime villains of F1?

Fighting the cause
Christian Horner defended Red Bull after the team was disqualified in Australia 2014 (Image Credit: @OracleRedBullRacing on Twitter)

Weakness in F1 is a characteristic a team must never publicly show. Other teams will attack a rival if it senses weakness. Race decisions can go against a team on occasion, and a team will fight tooth and nail to ensure minimal damage from it. In the case of Red Bull, it uses the attack form of defence, citing regulations, rivals or even faulty FIA equipment. Essentially, the whole grid can be the villain.

In 2014, the team tried to contest a disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix. The team’s FIA fuel sensor malfunctioned, so instead stated that it used its own. Speaking during the appeal period, Horner labelled the FIA fuel sensor an “immature technology”. Somewhat predictably, the disqualification stood.

During the toxic 2021 campaign, Horner and Toto Wolff frequently appeared on the radio to then Race Director Michael Masi to influence his decisions. This came to a head in Abu Dhabi with Horner pressuring Masi into restarting the race. The incorrect procedure of only the cars between Verstappen and Hamilton remains a vocal point of contention to this day.

Horner maintains that this was the right decision, seemingly unaware or choosing to ignore the image this sent to the public. As reported by PlanetF1, saying at the start of the 2022 season that “I wouldn’t have done my job properly if I hadn’t,” believing that team to FIA radio should still be broadcast:

“In Abu Dhabi my job and my responsibility was to fight as hard as I could for the team. I wouldn’t have done my job properly if I hadn’t.

Yet, after the 2022 British Grand Prix, Horner thought that communications between teams and the FIA should have been stopped after last year’s event. As reported by The Telegraph, Horner blamed Wolff for the events in 2021, citing that he believed Wolff was “able to lobby and influence the race director”. Again, one could interpret these comments as attacking the villains of the off-track saga that developed last season:

“Then it really permeated at Silverstone where suddenly there was an awful lot of dialogue from Toto to Michael. Then he’s sending him an email and then he’s coming up [to race control] and I thought ‘I’m not having that. I’m going up.’

“I felt it was incredibly one-sided… that a team principal should be able to lobby and influence the race director.

“With hindsight, Toto and I had a fairly heated exchange in race control at that event. Toto was obviously arguing his corner that his driver shouldn’t be penalised. And I have got a driver in hospital and a car taken out of the race and was feeling pretty aggrieved by it.”

Horner then continued:

“Really after that race, we should have said there should only be one communication between the race director and team managers. But of course, at that point, the competitiveness becomes so driven that naturally, you’re going to do the best you can for your team. Of course, you’re going to argue as strongly as you possibly can for your team.

“I guess it all came to a head in Abu Dhabi, where Toto, at several points in the race, was trying to not get a safety car. He was trying to steer the course of the race and I get those transmissions. And as soon as you hear that your immediate reaction is defence. And my best form of defence is attack so that it’s not one-sided. The last person in someone’s ear has the biggest influence. I guess it’s right that [radio communications between team principals and race director have been banned].”

Publicly at least, Horner does not believe his lobbying of Masi in Abu Dhabi impacted the outcome of the race. He instead says, “I think his pressure was he wanted to get the race going again”. He added that Masi handled the situation mostly “by the book”:

“I don’t think so. I think his pressure was he wanted to get the race going again. The only thing he screwed up on was not allowing the final two cars at the back of the field to unlap themselves.

“But everything [else] that he’d done, you know, it was absolutely by the book and followed the principles of getting them to finish racing on track”.

Horner was of course doing what any good team principal would.  The main issue, however, is the catalyst for the negative image that Red Bull could now begin to suffer from.

Stoking the political fire
Christian Horner is a master at Press Conferences at a race weekend (Image Credit: @SkySportsF1 on Twitter)

Christian Horner and Verstappen’s actions seem to follow the ideology that attack is the best form of defence. Red Bull’s very public dissatisfaction at the hands of its chief villains during race control decisions formed part of the mud-slinging between themselves and Mercedes in a brutal 2021 campaign.

The result saw fans erupt to the defence of the other on social media, attacking each other condoned by the team principals. In short, Horner has weaponised the media, to brilliant effect.

Using this strategy, Horner applies political pressure to ensure Red Bull’s needs and status as the top team remains. He will fight on an issue until he gets an outcome. If the outcome fails, he will continue to push long after other team principals give up. It is a testament to his style and abilities, but in doing so all of the time, his political knockout punches are becoming fewer and fewer.

By claiming Red Bull have been wronged for over a year, Horner has now undermined the team’s position. Damon Hill continued to question if Horner really believed his team were wronged in 2021 at the start of this season. Horner responded again by stating that the majority of the decisions were against Red Bull in 2021.

In a time when FIA governance is under justifiable scrutiny for a variety of reasons (remember jewellery and underwear gate?), Horner stating his team is treated badly by the FIA just does not stick. The consequence of this now is that if Red Bull releases a statement criticising a decision or a penalty, it is met with scepticism. As Hill’s reaction to Horner attests to, the media simply is not buying the idea that Red Bull is a victim of its success or decisions going against them.

Denial form of attack
Max Verstappen lost his podium place at the 2017 US GP due to an illegal move, the FIA the villain in the incident (Image Credit: @FormulaSpy on Twitter)
Max Verstappen lost his podium place at the 2017 US GP due to an illegal move; the FIA the villain in the incident (Image Credit: @FormulaSpy on Twitter)

Horner denied to the media that the FIA were investigating a cost cap breach as rumours began to build that the team had breached it. The lions circled, and lobbied the FIA for harsh punishments, as expected. He and Red Bull continued to protest its innocence to the media.

When the news broke, the team reacted with “surprise and disappointment” that it breached the cost cap. Horner in a press conference convened after the punishment attempted to hint that other teams should be in the same position. As reported by RacingNews365, Horner said: “Not one penny was spent on the car. I’m astounded there were no other teams who found themselves in this [same] position.”

This is an interesting tactic of both Horner and Verstappen. When a decision goes against them, they employ what could be interpreted as attacking tactics. Verstappen at the 2017 US Grand Prix found himself thrown off the podium for overtaking the Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen on the last lap by cutting the chicane. He said the FIA “was killing the sport” when the FIA rightly applied racing rules.

Boycotting media
Max Verstappen boycotted Sky Sports at the Mexico GP, highlighting his pantomime villain qualities (Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool via Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Max Verstappen boycotted Sky Sports at the Mexico GP, Sky a villain to the Dutchman (Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool via Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Verstappen is said to have not reacted well to Ted Kravitz stating the 2021 title was “stolen” from Hamilton over the weekend of the 2022 United States Grand Prix. Said on a post-qualifying show for hyperbole, Verstappen then refused to take part in any further interviews with Sky Sports at the subsequent Mexico City Grand Prix – the following weekend – due to the comments.

Stating “they are always disrespecting me”,  Christian Horner, loyal as ever to his star driver, backed him. So the mainstream broadcaster in three of F1’s European nations had no further interviews with the reigning World Champion for the rest of the weekend.

If Verstappen and Red Bull believe that this is the correct attitude, both could find themselves sorely mistaken.  Does this mean in future that if any media ask a question that offends Verstappen or Red Bull they will refuse to talk to them? If so, this is an attempt at censorship and a dangerous precedent to set.

Boycotting Sky Sports only damages Red Bull’s reputation further. By seeking to silence those who criticise it, Horner and Red Bull do not gain further political power. It instead risks becoming a parodied villain. The Times has called Horner’s comments and decision delusional. Once Horner reads this, will he no longer permit the publication in Red Bull hospitality? Will he prevent this latest villain from attending media briefings?

On Monday, Horner stated that “normal service” will resume with Sky Sports from the next round in Brazil. He called out commentary that he did not believe was “impartial”:

“At the next race, service will be resumed. We just wanted to lay down a marker and say certain things aren’t acceptable and, as a team, we stand together, and we stand united as a team.

“An accusation of championships being robbed is something that we don’t feel is an impartial commentary. So, we don’t feel that is in any way fair or balanced.

“Red Bull are a cheap target sometimes.”

Of course, when announcing this, he attempted to vindicate the decision. Red Bull is not a “cheap target”. Vilifying the media is a shift in tactics to silence critics.

Verstappen’s attitude during races when frustration kicks in can turn the air bluer than the sky at 15,000 feet. It is a trait that divides the paddock. In 2022, Verstappen’s antics over the radio played out at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

As reported by ESPN, while struggling with a steering issue the reigning champion used four-letter expletives throughout the race. One such example was after his engineer stated his battery was ok, Verstappen replied: “No, it’s not! What the f— is this?”

Most other teams would not tolerate this. But Horner and Red Bull do because it wins them championships. However, the Sky Sports blackout shows the threat of boycott is now hanging any future critiquing in the media that Red Bull disapproves of.

He’s not behind you…

Red Bull’s fanbase will vehemently support the decision to boycott Sky Sports and any similar action taken in the future. But Red Bull’s strategy of stoking the fire and now seemingly attempting to censor those that criticise it could turn off a large majority of fans.

Red Bull has an arguable “bad boy” image. However, it now risks alienating the sport if it genuinely believes boycotting media and blaming others is viable.

The team will continue to be the elite operation it is. But the image of the team has taken a real hit in the last year. Its actions have the arguable hallmarks of a pantomime villain.

  1. This the biggest problem in F1…The media is more occupied on politics and intriges, meanwhile claim to be just commenting on what they see…sure you are. But its all one-sided isn’t it? Mercedes is a British team apearently these days cause it works for sir Hamliton and therefore its all good while Red Bull took away the 8 th title and so all hell breaks loose and no matter what is sad…its all criminal all of a sudden. Forgetting the facts like Silverstone’s cheat and the race after Bottas knocked off 2 Red Bulls…very suspicious. Therefore Max could have been world champ long before Abu Dabi…but that race an all decider as far as you fans an media are concerned…I say: Get real! Have a lovely day from Holland 😉

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