Red Bull leader’s warning over the future of F1
Christian Horner is aware that he will be accused of selective memory at best and rank hypocrisy at worst when he declares “the biggest turn-off in any sport is when you have a serial winner”. As the architect of four successive double world championships from 2010 to 2013, it is hard to remember Horner complaining too much about ‘the Red Bull years’.
“Sure, I accept that,” he smiles. “But if you look at the statistics, OK, we won 13 races in 2013. That was our most dominant year. But in 2010 there were four drivers on the grid at that final race in Abu Dhabi – [Mark] Webber, [Fernando] Alonso, [Sebastian] Vettel and [Lewis] Hamilton – all of whom could have come away as world champions.
“And then again in 2012, when we left Europe, Sebastian had only won one grand prix, in Valencia. It went down to Brazil, in the rain, with a prang for Seb on the first lap and everyone was on tenterhooks. So it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, Red Bull won four in a row, it was boring.’ But actually, two of those were incredibly exciting.”
Whether Horner is right or wrong about how thrilling that period was, he is right when he says that fans would prefer to see a closer contest.
This year has seen an improvement on that front, with Ferrari a far better match for Mercedes. But the championship is still at best a twohorse race and Horner believes the net should be widened still further.
“It’s great that Sebastian has been in the fight this year,” Horner says. “We have seen an upturn in interest as a result. We are six and a half per cent up in viewing figures. People are coming to the tracks again… But wouldn’t it be great if we could have Lewis, Sebastian, Max [Verstappen], Daniel [Ricciardo], even Fernando [Alonso], all boxing it out for the championship? That’s what F1 needs.”
Sitting in Red Bull’s motorhome in the Suzuka paddock, it is interesting listening to the man who became Formula One’s youngest team principal back in 2004 putting the case for a more egalitarian sport.
Horner’s star has fallen somewhat in the last four years, particularly since the departure of his mentor Bernie Ecclestone, a keen admirer. But he remains influential and he believes F1 is “at a crossroads” now in terms of which direction it takes next, with its very future as a sport on the line.
Asked about F1’s new owner, Liberty Media – which took over from CVC Capital Partners 12 months ago – Horner sounds equivocal, saying only that the Americans are doing things “very differently to Bernie”, and “time will tell” whether they will do it any better. “Bernie’s style was very dictatorial,” Horner adds. “It was his train set and he ran it the way he wanted to. When he was operating at his peak, with Max Mosley, he had the whole thing tucked up. Probably in reality he didn’t care too much about the fans. He cared about the numbers.
“One could argue it’s more relaxed now. And it’s certainly far more about the fans, which is certainly good.”
One suspects Horner’s ultimate verdict on Liberty will depend on what they do next. Horner has been a critic of the current engines, which came into effect in 2014 when 2.4-litre naturally-aspirated V8s were replaced by a turbocharged 1.6-litre V6. The switch, he says, has done “a lot of damage.” Not only in terms of competition, with Mercedes going from also-rans to virtually unbeatable courtesy of superior horsepower. But also in terms of entertainment. “From a cost point of view, from a spectacle point of view, from a competitive point of view, this engine has been a disaster,” Horner says.
“Taking away the sound was a bit like going to a pop concert or a rock concert with the volume turned down. That was part of the DNA of the sport.”
Horner says that Ecclestone was “old enough and wise enough” to see what would happen – that the manufacturers would spend millions on “a technology war that the guy in the grandstand can’t understand or see.” It is not too late, though. The next move, Horner says, is critical. The new engine, due in 2021, must be “simpler, with a smaller bracket of performance divergence”, and there should be an independent engine manufacturer supplying teams at a reasonable cost.
And in no way, Horner adds, should Liberty be swayed by the car industry’s move towards electric.
“This decision has to be right,” he says. “You’ve got different governments and manufacturers saying, ‘Oh, we’ll be electric and autonomous by 2030, or whatever. In my view Formula One is at a crossroads. What is its purpose? We have Formula E, and a lot of manufacturers are morphing into that area. But the emotion, the entertainment, the excitement of those cars just isn’t there.
“F1, ultimately, is man and machine at its absolute limit. It is modern-day chariot racing. Or it should be. Personally, I would go back to V12s, which make a tremendous noise and have open cockpits and make the drivers heroes again. I accept that the regulator and the commercial rights holder can’t go quite that far. But they are leaning more in that direction than a technology war that the guy in the grandstand doesn’t understand.”
And one that might just make Red Bull competitive again? Horner smiles. “I accept that [charge],” he says. “But step out of those shoes for a moment. The changes Liberty are going to make will affect the next 10 years. It is so important to get it right.
“They have got the right people in the right positions, with [new managing director of motorsport] Ross Brawn and the people he has around him. Ross is a strategic thinker. We need to trust him and Chase [Carey, F1’s new CEO] to do the right thing.”
Feel the noise: Christian Horner believes switching to turbocharged engines has been a ‘disaster’, not least because they are so quiet