Christian Horner interview: ‘Drive to Survive is the Kardashians on Wheels... you go from hero to villain fast’
Shouts of ‘Mr Red Bull’ echo from the local bus stop in Hampstead from the mouths of children heading off to school. For Christian Horner, it has become the standard greeting as he sets off on his early-morning run.
The recognition is all part of the Netflix effect, Drive to Survive having turned the Red Bull team principal into one of its stars. And, crucially, inside the four walls of the London family home, it is a series that has given him kudos with his stepdaughter, Bluebell.
At an age, 16, where parents are habitually a total embarrassment, “suddenly dad’s become fairly cool in her world”. Of his three children, she is the only one allowed to have watched the show, and she is now a member of school WhatsApp groups set up to pore over the actions of her father and the rest of the grid.
Horner’s sense when he sees the clips at the end of each season is usually the same. He admits: “The problem is they follow us for the entirety of the year. You forget, relax and then say something you shouldn’t. Then you see it back and think, ‘did I really say that?’ But it’s a TV show. It’s like the Kardashians on Wheels, and you go from being the hero to villain very quickly.”
Horner is not afraid to be the villain, something that reached its peak at the end of a fractious 2021 season in which he, Max Verstappen and Red Bull denied Lewis Hamilton the world title.
“When you’re competing against the most successful driver of all time and denying him winning, it’s inevitable we’re not going to be that popular with all the Lewis Hamilton fans,” he says from the confines of his office at the team’s HQ just outside Milton Keynes. “But we’re British based, 95 per cent of the people we employ are British. We just don’t have British drivers.”
Would the barbs be less if they did? “Of course,” he says, and talks have been held over the years of doing just that with Hamilton joining their ranks, but they never went much further than initial discussions. “And anyway, I’m a hero in Holland and Mexico,” says Horner, drily.
The 49-year-old re-entered F1’s circus again in Baku with the Netflix cameras once more on him this weekend after a three-week break spent teaching his son, Monty, to ride a bike and taking his other daughter, Olivia, out on pony rides.
Running a workforce approaching nearly 1,500 people, Horner has a remarkable ability to switch off when required. “The kids don’t get me all the time, but the time when they do get me I’m present and engaged, and they really take me away from the madness of F1.”
He tries to do school drop-off at least once or twice a week and, at home, the battle is that of most parents trying to get their kids off screens. The youngest, Monty, is currently obsessed with Lego. Just last week, he professed to Horner and his wife Geri, the Spice Girl, with seriousness that he was planning to sell his bed to buy the Titanic.
“He’s just built a Heritage Land Rover with a gearbox, he’s six and doing 18-plus Lego,” says Horner proudly. “He’s done the Millennium Falcon and AT-AT, and he does them incredibly quickly.”
Is he destined to become the next Adrian Newey, the mastermind behind the Red Bull car whose office sits directly opposite that of Horner’s?
“It was Adrian who gave him his first box of Lego and told him, ‘follow the instructions’,” he says. “Now, the only person that doesn’t follow the instructions is Adrian!”
Horner first met his wife in Red Bull’s hospitality suite at the Monaco Grand Prix when she came as a guest of former F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone. But, in a bizarre way, their paths had crossed many years earlier.
As a racing driver previously, Horner found himself sponsored by Elisabeth the Chef, who had licences to supply two cakes to British supermarkets: one of Dennis the Menace and the other of the Spice Girls. He had to have one emblazoned on his car… he opted for the Beano character.
“They said, ‘if the cakes sell well, we’ll be able to sponsor you a bit more’,” he recalls. “Then every little girl in this country decided they had to have the Spice Girl cake, so she indirectly funded my racing career… but Dennis the Menace gets all the credit.”
Closer to home, the focus is on lesser horsepower, between them husband and wife owning three racehorses named after her former solo hit singles. Lift Me Up cleaned up in the point-to-point world before being entered into a first race under rules at Newbury last month and duly won.
It is due to run again at Cheltenham next Friday, when Horner will be at the Miami Grand Prix but tuning into Racing TV just before first free practice. If victorious, it will qualify for the Hunters’ Chase at next year’s Cheltenham Festival.
In the end we took the cost-cap penalty on the chin, but the best thing is to do your talking on the track
A new horse has just been added to the stable in the last two weeks, the naming of which he opened up to his Drive to Survive audience. “I asked on Instagram what to call the new horse, which ranged from Toto Wolff to No Mikey No and Sort Your F***ing Car Out!” he says, laughing. In the end, the Horners settled on the rather less controversial Raining Men.
Of his own racing career, Horner quickly realised as he climbed the ranks up to Formula 3, where he won races against the likes of McLaren boss Zak Brown, that fear stopped him from pushing the limit and joining the elite.
Having seen two deaths — one of a team-mate in Indycar and another of a rival in an F3 race in which he was involved — had not helped the mental demons. At the age of 25, he knew his driving career was over, so he instead became a team boss, first of Arden and then Red Bull.
And he insists he never thinks what might have been behind the wheel. “Personally, I’ve taken far more satisfaction from leading a team,” he says of the role he took up in 2005 with little real qualifications to his name.
“I’ve always been a believer in life that if you want something bad enough you achieve it. Everything I’ve visualised in life, I’ve achieved.
“I have no formal education other than a couple of A-levels. I’ve never been on a business management course, I’ve never been through university, I’m technically unqualified. I have an honorary degree, which completely pisses my brothers off, who did go through university and worked their arses off to get them.”
Horner and Red Bull have shaken up the established order of F1, not bad for an energy drinks company, as he likes to put it. And they are taking that a step further by building their own engines for the 2026 season.
“It’s madness that the subsidiary of an energy drink is going to take on Mercedes, Audi, Ferrari, Renault, potentially Honda, in designing and manufacturing our own engine, but we believe, with the right talent, mindset, culture, determination and facilities, why can’t we do it? But that’s a monumental leap for us.”
Long before that, Red Bull appear to be marching to the most comfortable of title wins, with victory in all three races to date. But Horner is adamant his rivals will close the gap, in part down to the reduction the team have on their wind tunnel usage this year, a penalty for their cost-cap breach which will impact both this year’s car and that of 2024.
The row has left a sour taste in Horner’s mouth, after the team exceeded it by £400,000 following their incorrect interpretation about what should and should not have been within the boundaries of the cost cap.
“In the end, we accepted the penalty, we took it on the chin and we’re dealing with the handicap that that’s provided,” he says.
Is there a danger of falling foul of it again? “There’s 175,000 lines of submission, so inevitably there’s a risk, and we won’t be the only team that comes under pressure from the cost cap.
“The problem with something like that [their breach] is that it gets jumped on by your opponents and they use it to hide behind as an excuse for their own shortcomings. We had another team ringing our commercial partners saying we’re bringing them into disrepute and causing reputational damage and they should think about leaving the team and maybe joining another team. That’s not right, that’s underhand.”
Does he bear a grudge? He says not. “The best thing is to do your talking on the track,” he concludes. And , currently, Red Bull are doing just that.