► Exclusive interview with Red Bull boss Christian Horner
► Horner: ‘There isn’t one single captain these days’
► Can Red Bull improve on last year’s win-less season?
You can tell a lot from someone’s office. Bernie Ecclestone’s, for example, is dark and sparsely decorated, and the two adjacent meeting rooms give ample indication of his mischievousness. One of them has every Penthouse front cover as wallpaper; the other has a model of a million dollars in cash in the middle of the table.
Christian Horner’s office is equally illuminating. In the far corner sits his desk, not a paper out of place, and the room is dominated by a large rectangular table. Not a magazine front cover in sight. The only homage to the day job is a photograph of a Red Bull Formula One car on the wall and two miniature helmets, belonging to Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, on the sideboard. The decor sums up Horner: organised and understated.
The boss’s attitude permeates through the team. Gone is the flamboyance of Red Bull’s early years in F1, when the team was more show than go; it’s now an established F1 powerhouse. Last year might have been its first win-less season since 2008, but it still does many things better than every other team in the pitlane.
Take the crash tests of this year’s RB12 chassis. So confident was the team that it would pass the stringent new side impact loading – up from 15kN to 50kN – that it didn’t submit a chassis to the FIA until the Monday before pre-season testing in Barcelona. No other team dared leave it that long, but Red Bull’s belief in their build processes gained them valuable extra weeks in the wind tunnel.
The success of the crash testing vindicated the new(ish) management structure in place at Red Bull Milton Keynes HQ. With chief technical officer Adrian Newey only a bit-part player these days (a big-picture man, preferring to leave the car’s detailing to others), technical operations are fronted by four departmental heads, one from each of aerodynamics, mechanical engineering, r&d and operations.
‘Adrian is less hands-on now,’ says Christian. ‘He continues to steer the overall design of the car, but we work in a different way and we continue to do a great job with the car. If you look at the numbers, we had a very competitive chassis from Silverstone onwards last year and despite the late call on this year’s engine, we’re confident that we’ve made good progress with this chassis.’
In terms of performance, the big question mark for Red Bull this year is its power unit. A below par offering from Renault in 2015 resulted in the team trying to do a deal with every other manufacturer in F1, but they were either turned down or offered year-old engines. As a result this unlikely chassis-engine couple has been forced back together for a tenth consecutive season, although there will be no Renault branding on the car.
To ensure a less fractious relationship with Red Bull this year, Renault must improve both the grunt and the reliability of its 1.6-litre V6 Turbo. That should come hand-in-hand with the decision to employ engine guru Mario Illien, but there’s no escaping the harsh reality that the early races will be a struggle. Lead times are longer with engines than they are with the chassis, so the planned improvements won’t come on stream until the middle of the year.
‘There’s been a lot of change on Renault’s side,’ says Horner. ‘They’ve focused on the areas that need improving, but it’s going to be tough to begin with. We know that and we’re prepared for it, but we’re expecting improvements as the new engines get introduced. We’re contracted to get exactly the same engine as the works team, as was the case in 2009 and 2010, when Renault last had its own team.’
Despite the obvious need for better performance from Renault, Red Bull makes no bones about its disinterest in F1 technology. They are in the sport to engage with its millions of fans and they have a clear vision about how to achieve that.
‘Red Bull aren’t in the sport for its tech,’ says Horner. ‘The drivers must be the heroes, which isn’t the case at the moment. The cars must be dramatic and difficult to drive and there must be greater differentiation between the drivers, based on the challenge of driving the cars. It’s all got a bit too easy and that’s what we need to shake up.’
Few people would disagree with his summary, but what is the sport doing to improve the situation? There’s been plenty of discussion about rule changes for 2017, but nothing has been set in stone. In days gone by Bernie Ecclestone would have pushed through the necessary changes, but things have changed. F1’s constitution no longer allows Ecclestone to treat F1 as his personal fiefdom; he has to work in conjunction with the governing body.
‘There isn’t one single captain these days,’ says Horner. ‘In days gone by it was Bernie, but that’s not the case anymore. The promoter [Bernie] and the governing body [the FIA] need to get together and to tell us “this is what we want F1 to be”. But I’m not sure they’ll do that; I’m not sure they know what to do. I think they know what they want F1 to be, but I’m not sure they know what needs to happen in order to get there.’
That’s a pretty damning verdict from Horner, who has become the F1 face of a company that invests heavily in the sport and has plenty of experience as a promoter through its involvement in the World Rally Championship. And Horner, remember, has often been mooted as Bernie’s successor, an allegation that he’s denied with a smile.
You sense that plenty of important meetings are going to take place in Horner’s office. First up he needs to plot Red Bull’s return to the top step of the podium; after that, who knows?