Voices: I’ve seen the ‘leaked Christian Horner WhatsApps’ – now, what is F1 going to do about its woman problem?

Horner responded with a firm statement: ‘I won’t comment on anonymous speculation, but to reiterate, I have always denied the allegations’  (AP)
Horner responded with a firm statement: ‘I won’t comment on anonymous speculation, but to reiterate, I have always denied the allegations’ (AP)

As Formula 1 pre-season build-ups go, this one has definitely achieved the highest “popcorn-munching” rating from observers of the sport.

As the teams arrived in Bahrain yesterday for the first Grand Prix of the season, all eyes were firmly on Red Bull boss Christian Horner, who has been the subject of a very serious investigation into allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

As the cars warmed up on the track, the heat was definitely rising for Horner. So when the announcement finally came that the Red Bull boss had been officially cleared, following a three-week internal investigation by the multi-championship winning F1 team, a collective sigh of “right, let’s get on with the job” was doubtless audible amongst the rest of the teams and drivers.

Well, turns out the spotlight hasn’t yet swivelled away from Horner just yet. In a dramatic turn of events, the very next day a series of “sexually suggestive” WhatsApp messages and pictures were leaked to senior F1 figures, other team principles and members of the media. Meaning that 24 hours after being exonerated, the whole sordid trail of alleged messages between Horner and the complainant were circulating around the internet.

Horner responded with a firm statement: “I won’t comment on anonymous speculation, but to reiterate, I have always denied the allegations.”

Now, I’ve seen the leaked messages. And while we can’t verify the authenticity of the content at this stage, my personal view is that if they’re not real, someone has done a bloody good job of imagining what Horner would sound like on WhatsApp (creepy old man vibes, in case you’re wondering).

Equally, if they’re not real, then someone has done a painstaking amount of work to develop a timeline of messages that appears to match up with real-world dates, names and occasions that make it all look and feel very authentic indeed.

I have to say, my immediate reaction when I first heard about the allegations was one of shock. Now that I’ve seen these messages, aside from the deep sense of ick I got when reading them, I’m struggling even more with the lack of transparency around the process and justification of the outcome. Let’s be honest – if the messages are genuine, and it is a big “if” at this stage – he wouldn’t be the first man in a position of power to attempt to use it over a woman would he? Sigh. And sigh, again.

Either way, let’s step back a moment and give Horner a little breathing room because there’s a much bigger story going on here – albeit one in which he still plays a major role.

As I see it, there are three issues at play: one concerns Horner’s behaviour, the second is about lack of diversity across the sport, and the third is about transparency. I think it’s fair to say all three of those elements are seriously problematic.

Prior to the Horner verdict becoming public, Lewis Hamilton told the media that he believed the outcome would be an “important moment for the sport to make sure that we stand true to our values” and that “it will be interesting to see how it is dealt with”.

I fully agree with Hamilton. As a woman with a long-standing love of motor racing, I can’t help but cringe at the macho atmosphere on display every time I watch a Grand Prix.

Other than a few cursory female TV presenters (thank God broadcast media clocked the importance of this a long time ago) and a sprinkling of female guests who’ve been invited to watch the race, women barely even make an appearance on screen for the full three hours of broadcasting.

Take a good look at any shots of the pit lane, the team back rooms, or the engineers watching the race and you’ll struggle to spot a woman. And the fact is (despite being lectured to by men constantly about how women simply aren’t “strong enough” to withstand the forces undergone by F1 drivers), there is absolutely no reason why women can’t drive these cars, change tyres (no, they’re not too heavy for us to lift), and run racing teams.

F1 has done huge work in the last five years or so on promoting diversity and inclusivity – with more women and people from an ethnic minority in the sport than ever before – but lack of female representation is still a problem, and the sport knows it.

That’s why ventures like Susie Wolff’s new F1 Academy are so important. Susie, a former racing driver herself, has admirably kick-started a movement designed to champion the female talent in motorsport at grassroots level. And it’s getting significant traction with major sponsors.

That’s all well and good, but getting more women and girls into the sport will only work if the sport itself supports it fully and authentically. Which means, as Hamilton put it, “staying true to its values”.

I struggle to see that happening without full transparency over the Horner allegations, investigation and outcome. Brushing things under the carpet isn’t an option any more these days – sports fans are more savvy than that. And no matter how big and powerful the F1 industry is, its reputation risks being shattered by a lack of transparency.

Nobody wants to see the sport fall into disrepute, but F1 needs to make some serious changes to how it operates – and fast – or it will start to lose the trust and confidence of everyone involved.