It was only a few weeks ago that Christian Horner partied the night away in Mayfair, a surprise bash at Mount St restaurant organised by his Spice Girl wife, Geri.
It was his 50th birthday, a function slightly delayed because of his Formula One duties as team principal of the Red Bull team who dominated last season, winning all but one of the 22 rounds, and the spirit of enjoyment could hardly have been merrier as Gary Barlow, Sir Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood serenaded the A-List supper.
Bernie Ecclestone and his Brazilian wife Fabiana Flosi were also there. The singers among the crowd belted out choruses of Happy Birthday and the half-centurion guest of honour cut the grand three-tier cake on which the legend ‘World Champion’ was written. ‘I thought we were forming a band,’ Horner joked.
In December he was promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire, recognition of his achievement in overseeing two periods of success at the team, the second of which ended Mercedes’ long period of Lewis Hamilton-led dominance in 2021.
But the gloss of those high points had worn thin yesterday with news that Horner is under internal investigation at the Austrian-owned fizzy drinks company, of which Red Bull Racing is a satellite part, for alleged and undefined misbehaviour. He denies the accusations made by a female employee.
(Back row, from left) Jade Jones, Ronnie Wood and wife Sally, Christian Horner, Gary Barlow, Rod Stewart, Penny Lancaster. (Front row) Emma Bunton and Geri Halliwell at 50th birthday
Halliwell threw her husband Horner a surprise 50th birthday party in December last year
Horner was also presented with a three-tier birthday cake which read ‘World Champion’
Horner joked they should start a new band after Gary Barlow was seen singing on the nigh
Horner has often smiled when he remembers he was once the new boy, the youngest member of the Piranha Club of Formula One’s team bosses. Men who would run over their grandmothers if they so much as delayed a pit stop.
His entrance into motor racing’s top flight came with Red Bull’s debut season in 2005 and they were cast as the party team, not taking themselves too seriously. I remember a photographer at one function in Bahrain falling like a felled tree into a bush.
That was back then and Red Bull have recast themselves into the remarkably successful machine that has taken Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen to seven world drivers’ and six constructors’ titles. And now, Horner is the longest-serving of the high-rolling clan of chiefs he joined as a 31-year-old of huge talent.
How much longer he will remain in post is suddenly unclear, with less than a month to go before the start of the season in Bahrain. The car is due to be launched next week in the factory at Milton Keynes and there is a desirability to resolve his future before then.
I am told Geri — whom he married eight years ago and has a six-year-old son Monty with, elevating Horner’s profile in a celebrity world he found agreeable to share, but doesn’t grandstand in — is ‘devastated’ by the developments. A friend said: ‘She has told Christian to make it all go away. She will be sticking to him like glue, smiling and putting on a brave face in public.’
Horner, who lives in north London, with an estate in Oxfordshire where he and Geri have a stable of race horses, told me on Saturday the allegations are ‘nuts’. He has employed expensive lawyers to protect him from the nature of the allegations being exposed.
In nearly 20 years writing about Formula One for this newspaper, I have known Horner as well as any other journalist, and have found him to be a reliable character. So it was with surprise that I heard the stories over the weekend. They were denied not only by Horner in his SMS exchanges with me but by the team’s PR machine.
That position changed when the parent company — Red Bull based in Salzburg — confirmed on Monday lunchtime that an investigation was ongoing.
The claims come entirely or mostly from a close colleague of Horner. I was told she was in the factory on Monday working through the day. Mail Sport knows the individual’s name but will not reveal it for legal reasons.
Red Bull chief Horner with David Beckham on the grid at the Miami Grand Prix in May 2022
Horner, pictured with Prince Harry before the Texas Grand Prix in October last year
An element of the imbroglio, though, and less obvious, is a typical Formula One twist: politics is never far from the surface and regardless of the particulars of the case, there is a subtext — a tug of war between those in Salzburg and the team Horner runs.
The spark of this difference of outlook can be traced back to the death of the company’s founder Dietrich Mateschitz in October 2022. Mateschitz, the great Austrian entrepreneur and billionaire, was a friend of Ecclestone, who recommended Horner, then making a name for himself as the boss of Arden in Formula 3000 and looking for a break into Formula One.
The Ecclestone-Mateschitz-Horner axis was tight, not least with Horner acting as best man at Ecclestone’s third wedding, a duty reciprocated when Horner moved into a higher realm of fame through his marriage to Geri. (He has a daughter, Olivia, nine, with former partner Beverley Allen.)
‘Christian is closest to the old school of bosses I used to know,’ Ecclestone once told me, also suggesting his pal as a successor as the sport’s ringmaster, a notion blown out of the water when American conglomerate, Liberty Media, bought the sport in 2017.
Back to Mateschitz and his death aged 79. Since then, the company is less obviously ruled by an overarching figurehead. Key figures have jostled for position.
One of those is Oliver Mintzlaff, the managing director and former boss of RB Leipzig. As one Red Bull observer said yesterday: ‘Mintzlaff wants Horner to depart, not least because he has become too senior and too expensive for their liking. But the Thais on the main board aren’t so sure.’
The Thai contingent is headed by Chalerm Yoovidhya, son of Red Bull’s co-founder Chaleo, along with Mateschitz. Chalerm, as an heir to the company fortune, is estimated to be worth some £30billion. He remains a Horner loyalist, having turned up to race weekends, including to see Verstappen clinch the title in Qatar in October — coincidentally, when rumours of the allegations are now said to have originated.
Another figure in the mix is Dr Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s 80-year-old motorsport adviser — an Austrian believed to be more in line with Mintzlaff’s outlook than Horner’s.
‘Marko was given a contract renewal last year, but he saw his money halved,’ said a well-placed F1 figure yesterday. ‘There is the notion that he wants his revenge on Horner, and wants him out.’
This is all a horror for Horner, who was born into motoring. His father Garry owned an automotive business and Christian learned basic mechanics at a young age. He was 11 when the bug really bit.
Horner with Red Bull’s Formula One champion Max Verstappen in Qatar on October 7 last year
Halliwell and Horner arrive for the 2023 Bafta Film Awards in London on February 19 last year
‘There was an old kart in the garage of the house my parents were buying,’ Horner recalled. ‘They did not manage to get it as part of the sale. So I pestered them until they found a go-kart in the local paper. It was about sixty quid in Leamington Spa and my mother bought it for my birthday.’
Horner did well as a young driver, racing against David Coulthard, but discovered his ceiling, admitting: ‘I was following Juan Pablo Montoya (the super Colombian talent who drove in F1) and realised he was in a different league.’
He knew his future was running teams rather than racing for them, just as Ecclestone had as a kid called Stirling Moss zoomed past him half a century before.
Away from the flashbulbs, Horner is a motor racing obsessive, a ‘racer’ as they’re known, and he is now hoping he can continue in the role that has for so long defined him.