Managing pressure is an integral part of Formula One. At the sharp end of the sport it is the team principals who carry the responsibility and the burden and it is of considerable weight. Christian Horner is no stranger to dealing with it during a career marked by a focused and driving ambition that has delivered extraordinary success.
However Horner, the Red Bull team principal, is facing a week of scrutiny perhaps like no other he has encountered during his 20 years in F1, as the team’s parent company conducts an investigation into allegations of inappropriate controlling behaviour made against him.
He has very much learned his role on the job. Having joined Red Bull at the helm in the team’s first season in Formula One in 2005, Horner was the youngest ever team principal at the time at 31. Almost two decades later he remains with the team and is now the longest-serving principal on the grid. He has made the point that his team environment, and indeed his management, is unique.
“We are different at Red Bull. You won’t see anyone in a suit and tie here, it’s more jeans and T-shirt,” he said of the culture he has engendered. “We play our music loud, we don’t conform, we are not answerable to an engine manufacturer. We call it as we see it and we are not afraid to have an opinion.”
When he took over the team, which had been Jaguar, its personnel amounted to 450 staff. Today, having returned seven drivers’ championships and six constructors’ titles it employs 1,500 people within Red Bull Racing, Red Bull Powertrains and Red Bull Advanced Technologies, across all three of which Horner sits as CEO.
The days of running a team in an actual garage with a handful of mechanics have long gone. The team principal sits at the head of what is effectively a small industry and one that is quite singular. The team must be a design group, a research group, a manufacturing concern, a publicity machine, a sporting entity and nowadays also very much a corporate business. In its scale and complexity the F1 team is like no other sporting organisation.
The demands are relentless and unforgiving, more so perhaps than any other similar-sized structure because success is measured beyond a balance sheet but in competition that is both fierce and very public. Horner, like all team principals, is more than aware that he is the forward-facing representative of the team, second only in interest and stature to the two drivers.
The role often attracts singular personalities and they are rarely shrinking violets. A level of assertiveness is a given, decisiveness too and often a streak of ruthlessness. Horner has demonstrated these traits repeatedly, not least when he chose to abandon his driving career at just 25 years old. Recognising with honest reflection he was not in the top tier he acted swiftly and decisively. It was an early example of his clear-sighted pragmatism as he chose instead to put his energy into developing the Arden racing team he had formed.
That he had real talent in that department was made clear as Arden proved swiftly successful and led to him being headhunted for the Red Bull job. It was an immense task when he began and one he turned around with striking speed. Five years after taking over he had secured the team’s first world championship and would go on to take four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ doubles between 2010 and 2013.
In assessing the task Horner has always been explicit that the most important role a team principal plays is in people management, with the leader setting the tempo, the direction and the objectives.
“It’s a people business,” he said. “It’s about understanding people and working with people, about getting the right people around you and giving them the right direction and trying to create the right environment for them.”
This requires both considerable management skill and, for all that clearly the scale of the organisation dictates an art of delegation, people skills as well.
It is unusual too in requiring a performative element and Horner has notably not shied from F1’s politicking when rivals are under pressure. Playing this game is part and parcel of the sport which further ratchets up the tension, and it was particularly notable how hard it became during the 2021 campaign as Horner’s driver Max Verstappen went toe to toe with Lewis Hamilton across the entire season.
Horner has said that pressure in F1 is simply inevitable, with which it is hard to argue, a facet of a complex and intricate role that makes demands like no other.