How Christian Horner Became Formula 1's Main Character

The morning after the Formula 1 traveling circus touched down in South Beach for last weekend’s Miami Grand Prix, Christian Horner, the team principal and CEO of Red Bull Racing, headed out to the beach to go for a run. Horner isn't the face of the team—that's neck-stepping two-time champ Max Verstappen—but he is the alpha and omega of what he calls “the biggest single asset of Red Bull,” a speed-obsessed, 1500-employee entity tucked inside the energy drink empire. Still, he was surprised by what he encountered on the South Beach jogging path: a bunch of Floridians with strong opinions about his work. “You’ve got people running the other way going, ‘Good luck this weekend,’ wanting selfies and [giving] fist pumps and so on,” he said. “It was like, wow. Three or four years ago, I would've been able to run down there and back even in a Red Bull shirt.”

While Horner (like his peers) receives prime minister-grade coverage in Europe, the member of his family most likely to be recognized stateside in recent years is his wife, Geri Halliwell, best known for her time performing as Ginger Spice. In the last few years, though, Formula 1’s Netflix-aided American boom has made Horner recognizable in this country, too. “Now the immigration guys, even—they used to get excited about my wife when she arrived,” he said. “But now it seems to be, ‘You’re the guy from the Drive to Survive!’”

Indeed, everywhere I went last weekend in Miami, I seemed to find Christian Horner. To a degree this is simply the job of Formula 1 team principal, at least in the manner Horner practices the job: the more time he spends gladhanding, the less time Red Bull’s drivers, Max Verstappen and Sergio “Checo” Perez, have to. And so there he was, strolling back and forth on Friday from the paddock to the “team village” set up on the field at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. In my car to the track, I caught a radio ad promoting a party at the Hard Rock Hotel in Fort Lauderdale with the promise of a Horner appearance. Saturday morning, he popped up on my hotel room TV, appearing on SportsCenter to comment on Verstappen’s shudderingly fast performance during Friday’s second practice session.

Horner on the track at the Miami GP.

F1 Grand Prix of Miami

Horner on the track at the Miami GP.
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Getty Images

If Horner’s schedule—and the amount of attention he received—was any indication, year two of F1’s new and overt emphasis on the American market was going as planned. America, you might have heard, has fallen, and fallen hard, for the world’s favorite motorsport: this year the States will play host to three races, more than any other country, with a brand-new Grand Prix set for the Vegas strip later this fall. The race in Miami—the Miami Grand Prix, in full—was shaping up in its second-ever running to be yet another big weekend for Horner’s team. Heading into the race, Red Bull had won 15 of the series's previous 16 races, a stretch of success punctuated by Verstappen wrapping up his second consecutive world championship in dominant fashion, and underscored this spring by the widely held belief that no one on the grid had constructed a car capable of competing with Red Bull’s.

“Winning is addictive, and once you've sampled it, you want to keep that feeling going,” Horner told me. “We've won, as a team, 96 races in the last 18 and a half seasons. And each one of those means something.” As those wins have accrued, they’ve helped turn Red Bull from a renegade upstart—“We are a subsidiary of an energy drinks company,” he reminded me, repeating a favorite line—to something like the Death Star.  Despite his team’s recent dominance, Horner knows just as well what it's like to be pushing from behind: the team was founded in 2005, and by 2010 set off on a streak of four consecutive titles—and then went quiet for nearly a decade, as Mercedes ripped off a dominant run of eight straight championships, before climbing back to the top. In his nearly 20 years running Red Bull, he has come to learn what a win feels like—its weight, its shape, its cost. “When you're the hunter, it's almost easier. The pressure is less. You take more risks,” he said, referring to the rest of the field. “When you become a hunted, where we are now, you very much have a target on your back. The moment you go conservative, that's not who we are. So our best approach is to keep attacking, keep pushing, and keep driving ourselves forward. And then it's down to the others to catch, rather than us becoming conservative.”

One thing that helps keep Horner sharp is Red Bull’s rivalry with Mercedes. A running subplot of Drive to Survive, and of F1 media more generally, is the sniping between Horner and his Mercedes counterpart, Toto Wolff. The two make for an easy contrast. Horner is compact and blunt-spoken; Wolff, tall and unusually handsome and quick to laugh. While drivers have criticized the Netflix series for the way it seems to embellish drama, the Horner-Wolff dynamic doesn’t seem to be kayfabe. “Look, competition in sport is a healthy thing, and I don't believe you can be best friends with your rivals,” Horner said. “There has to be a respect, but they're a rival—you want to beat them. And we're very honest in our approach. We see Mercedes and Ferrari as our rivals, and being best friends with them doesn't help you.”

We’d only been chatting for a few minutes at a South Beach hotel before Horner was interrupted by an overeager fan in town for the race weekend. He approached Horner with a level of familiarity that surprised me, before veering off into grievance, or perhaps a brag: “Do you know how much I paid? Five thousand for tickets!” I thought, maybe, that they knew each other; by the reaction of Horner and the two Red Bull employees accompanying him, it was instantly clear that they didn’t. (Carry yourself with the confidence of a man with very expensive tickets to a Formula 1 race.) The three-pointed star on the fan’s hat seemed to glow as he walked away. Horner smirked: “It's always a Mercedes fan.”

Horner and Toto Wolff have a rare all-smiles moment in Miami.

F1 Grand Prix of Miami - Practice

Horner and Toto Wolff have a rare all-smiles moment in Miami.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The job of team principal is unique to Formula 1. In most cases, it’s a little bit like being both the coach and general manager of a team: you’re responsible for race-day strategy and performance, but also for team construction and front-office duties. Unique among most of his peers, however, Horner also serves as Red Bull Racing’s CEO. It’s a little bit like if Gregg Popovich was also responsible for negotiating the Spurs’ sponsorship deals—and, given the fact that each team is responsible for producing their own car, overseeing the design of every player’s sneakers.

“For 23 weekends of the year, I'm the team principal of a high performing sports team,” Horner explained. “And then between Monday and Friday, I'm the CEO of a high performing technology business. So when I'm back in the UK, I'm generally in the office. It’s a combination of strategy meetings, updates—and then of course there's dealing with the commercial side, the sponsors, the partners, the marketing side, dealing with the shareholders, dealing with the governing body, and the commercial rights holder. And then of course dealing with you guys in the media.”

Despite his 11 world titles with Red Bull (six for individual drivers, and five for the team), Horner still thinks of it as “a bit of a maverick team,” as he put it to me. “There's always been an edge to Red Bull. We've taken an approach from the beginning that, look, we're just as serious and as committed as any other team, but we're not afraid to have some fun along the way. So you'll hear the music playing loudest in our garage.” (I did.) “You'll see all kinds of activities going on with the Energy Station and some of the crazy stuff that we do on the marketing side.” (I did.) “We've very much got a jeans and t-shirt culture in the factory. You'll never see a tie or a suit in there.” (Indeed, Horner wore navy pants and a white polo to our meeting.) “And it's a whole culture that has been created: we're not afraid to speak our mind and dare to be different. We don't conform with what the other teams or manufacturers want you to be.”

It was a little rich, hearing a guy leading the most dominant team in the sport, and one of the two most dominant over the last decade, describe Red Bull as a disruptor. And yet! No matter how well they’re performing, Red Bull always manages to leave a little room for drama.

As evidence of Red Bull’s maverick culture, Horner cited the team’s performance at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in April, and specifically his decision to let “both drivers push every single lap of last weekend's race. Max hit the wall four times, Checo hit the wall three times, but we allowed the drivers to get after it and push 100%. The easiest thing in the world for us would've been to say, this is a street track, and there's a massive risk of damage here by the fifth lap—to turn the race off and say, Guys, just cruise home and bring the cars home. But that's not who we are.” Pérez and Verstappen finished one-two—Red Bull’s fourth win, and fourth double-podium finish, and third one-two finish—in the season’s first four races.

In the aftermath of the race, Pérez’s fans were quick to seize on the way Horner credited his victory in part to a “lucky” bit of timing with the safety car, overrunning his Instagram comments with complaints. Perhaps the most important part of Horner’s job is ego management: taking care of his drivers, and (though he won’t say this) especially the one, in Verstappen, in line to win his third consecutive title. When I asked about the way his post-race comments had been taken, Horner was quick to explain that he’d been misinterpreted—but also to double down on what he’d said. “Drive to Survive has brought in a whole new tabloid audience,” he said. “But I'm sure if it had been the other way around, the Dutch fans would've been going mad. So you're never going to keep everybody happy. And I think the most important thing is to be honest. Look, the safety car timing was lucky for Checo. He was unlucky last year in Jeddah. He got a little bit lucky. But what you do with that luck? You have to use it. You have to convert it. And it's gone against him in the past. So he had to convert that track position that he gained and he did that in the most spectacular style. And Checo will be the first to admit that the safety car fell at the perfect timing for him. That's racing. It'll balance itself out over the course of the year. His win wasn't lucky. His win was a result of a fantastic drive. He just had an opportune moment that he converted. And sometimes you need that in sport.”

The Red Bull squad celebrating their 2022 championship in Abu Dhabi.

F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2022

The Red Bull squad celebrating their 2022 championship in Abu Dhabi.
NurPhoto/Getty Images

Miami played out along similar lines: during qualifying on Saturday, Verstappen made a mistake that left him starting ninth, while Pérez secured the pole. And on Sunday, the Red Bull car once again outclassed its rivals. It was, once again, more or less a two-man race between Max and Checo, with the Dutchman hammering his way up the grid and overtaking his teammate late. “We're kind of wondering, where are the others?” Horner cheekily asked Sky Sports after the race.

Given the strength of the car—this year typically some 30 seconds faster than whoever comes in third—the biggest threat to Red Bull might come from within the house. The only person who seems capable of ending Verstappen’s reign is his teammate. As Wolff, the Mercedes principal, was eager to point out last weekend, Horner has a “super tricky job. Both drivers will obviously try to always feel that they are fairly and equally treated, while at the same time trying to have an advantage.” Horner explained to me that every driver likes to be managed in their own way: “Max is very straightforward. He gives you 110%—he just expects it back. Drivers like a Sebastian Vettel or a Daniel Ricciardo or even Checo are a little more sensitive. They need to feel that arm around their shoulder. So they're all different.” The press, of course, can also be another tool for ego management: reminding a reporter that his world-champ driver isn’t quite as “sensitive” as his teammate and predecessors isn’t the sort of decision I imagine Horner makes without calculation.

Whatever focus Horner can spare these days is pointed toward 2026, when the team is set to take its latest step into the establishment. At its founding, Red Bull was distinguished by its willingness to buy car parts from other suppliers (and in some cases its rivals), rather than produce them itself. Soon, though, the Red Bull car will hold a Red Bull engine (created in partnership with Ford), rather than one produced by and purchased from Honda. It will mark another step away from the upstart quality that has long defined the team, but Horner was quick to cast it in his preferred terms. “On face value, it’s madness for an energy drinks company to take on Mercedes and Ferrari and Audi and Renault and all these big manufacturers,” he said. “But again, it's the same approach, it's the same culture, that we have a can-do attitude and not being afraid to take on the challenge.”

Originally Appeared on GQ