Image credit: Victor Fraile

Should it be the end of ‘business as normal’ for Red Bull’s Christian Horner?

The saga of the Formula One (F1) Red Bull racing team is at the forefront of sports media – with all the characteristics that could make it the next plotline for the new season of Drive to Survive (a Netflix docuseries on the behind-the-scenes look at drivers/ races). At the centre of this scandal is Christian Horner, team principal of Red Bull for the past 19 years. Horner’s team, Red Bull, dominated the F1 championship in 2023, winning 21 out of the 22 races. However, ahead of the next season, Horner has come under fire based on allegations made by a female Red Bull employee, accusing him of ‘inappropriate behaviour’.

As the story is still unravelling, here is a brief timeline of the previous events and where we are now:

5th February – Allegations towards Horner surface concerning ‘inappropriate, controlling behaviour’ leading to an investigation by Red Bull’s parent company (Reb Bull GmbH)

9th February – Horner is questioned by a lawyer for 9 hours, who reaches no conclusion

15th February – Horner appears at a Red Bull car launch and states it is ‘business as normal’.

22nd February – Red Bull’s rival team leader from Mercedes, Toto Wolff calls for transparency.

28th February – The investigation ends and the complaint is dismissed.

29th February – On day 1 of the F1 Bahrain Grand Prix an anonymous email is circulated leaking WhatsApp messages between Horner and the employee. 

7th March – The employee is suspended by Red Bull.

7th March – Horner states that the media must ‘move on’.

Horner’s reactions form the centre of this scandal. Yet, the reaction of members of the Red Bull team, i.e. Max Verstappen (the lead driver at Red Bull) has placed the decision to not sack or suspend Horner in a different light. Verstappen has repeatedly stated the importance of Horner within the Red Bull team, fully backing his role in the team from a ‘performance’ perspective. A successful Grand Prix with a tried and tested race team are key reasons why Red Bull might want to quickly resolve the scandal with Horner in a way which enables him to retain his role at Red Bull

However, outside the Red Bull team, the FIA (the governing body for motor racing) and other racing teams have described this incident as a pivotal moment in F1, Wolff called it ‘an issue for all of Formula One’. Red Bull had the opportunity to stand out as progressive, dealing with the complaint transparently. However, it appears that the power imbalance and prioritisation of winning were deemed more important than reaching an ethical and transparent resolution.

Looking at the wider context of F1, it’s a sport dominated by men,  in which the fan base is also predominantly male. That is not to say women are not also fans, but the atmosphere at F1 races typically has an air of misogyny. Female fans at the Austrian Grand Prix described not ‘feeling safe’ at the event, and facing harassment, catcalling, and sexism. F1 posted a statement on the harassment but offered no guidance on what the follow-up actions would be. How the women handled these experiences was through sharing tips on social media, not from F1 taking action to reduce harassment at the race. There is a history where F1 shows inaction in prioritising and acknowledging the experience of women in the sport. This is why the case of Horner could have been an opportunity to start a counterculture, respecting the experience of women and holding men accountable.

This has been the case in other sports. Football is a prime example. Following accusations towards Mason Greenwood of rape, an immediate suspension followed. Red Bull, instead of enacting a temporary suspension, chose to mostly avoid talk on the ongoing case and carry on ‘business as usual’ with Horner.  Regardless of guilty or not guilty, the complaint was serious and should have been handled accordingly. Contrary to similar situations in other sports, Red Bull set its own precedent on how to handle the scandal, allowing Horner the benefit of the doubt.

Another problem, with how this scandal has been handled was the lack of public scrutiny and transparency, typically expected in a high-profile affair. Contrary to calls for a release of the case notes to the FIA, Red Bull provided no details of the investigation. This is especially important considering the 3rd party independent investigation was carried out by Red Bull GmbH – the parent company of Red Bull. This opens questions about how independent the investigation was. Conspiracies are furthered as there has been no transparency on how the affair was conducted, resolved, or checked. The media and public play a role in holding organisations accountable for their actions, setting a gold standard to be met, or face losing public trust. Rather than meeting this standard, the actions of Red Bull could be seen to indicate that the primary motive was to protect Horner.

Based on this glorification of sports figures, Horner is most likely protected in his position at Red Bull by avoiding talking about the allegations and trying to focus ‘on the future’. If not that, then a victory at the Bahrain Grand Prix will shift the narrative away from this scandal. This is not the first time Horner has been at the front of the media for controversy towards women. For example, he suggested the reason for female interest in the sport is ‘all these great looking young drivers’. Yet, this is not just a team Red Bull problem, it exists across F1. There has been inappropriate behaviour by other F1 drivers.  Nikita Mazepin (driver in Haas team) posted a video of himself assaulting a woman on social media. He issued an apology, and, like the rest of these problematic instances, the public moved on, and he remained an F1 driver. Following this history, it is likely this is going to carry on.

The scandal highlights again how F1 racing teams are consistently failing to promote inclusivity in the sport. 6% of those working behind the scenes on the Red Bull team are women, and 16.5% of the engineers at F1 are female. Red Bull states it stands by inclusivity within the sport – with schemes to get women more women involved… But ticking the box of inclusivity is very different to applying it to influential figures in the sport. 

Guilt or not guilty – how has the way Red Bull handled the complaint shown an actual culture of parity towards men and women? And does the outcome of this scandal make women want to take on careers in this sport? This is why the scandal is harmful to the sport. Red Bull’s treatment of Horner highlights the persistent power imbalance men have in one of the top teams in the sport and the lack of acknowledgement towards the severity of the woman’s complaint. This does not reflect the shift in male attitudes in the sport towards inclusivity, which Red Bull states it stands by. Instead, it continues to perpetuate a harmful culture in the fan base and work environment towards women at F1.

Congratulations Red Bull and Horner, you have (so far) won this championship.

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