JONATHAN McEVOY: Why Christian Horner’s text scandal could now cost Red Bull their star driver

Max Verstappen and his father Jos sat down for dinner in Dubai with plenty to chew over. 

The pair flew to the land of the skyscraper from Bahrain en route, in Max’s case, to Saturday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and the next instalment of Formula One’s grizzliest soap opera, a blockbuster that refuses to die.

At the centre of the plot is Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal who sent suggestive text messages to a woman colleague. Verstappen Snr wants the 50-year-old Englishman gone, a fact he expressed in public for the first time in these pages on Saturday.

 

In strident mood, he declared that the team, which is flushed with the success of 13 world championships in their 19 years of colourful existence, would ‘explode’ unless Horner moves on. He accused him of playing the victim.

Now, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see the possible implications in a dispute about the town not being big enough for the two of them. That is where Max, 26, and the greatest driver of his time, and possibly of any time, comes into it.

Geri Halliwell and Christian Horner arrive together at Grand Prix

Embattled Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was joined by his wife, Geri, in Bahrain
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Embattled Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was joined by his wife, Geri, in Bahrain

Jos Verstappen (right) claims Red Bull will 'explode' if Horner remains as the team principal


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Jos Verstappen (right) claims Red Bull will ‘explode’ if Horner remains as the team principal

It's lead to question marks over the future of Max Verstappen - who clinched victory in Bahrain
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It’s lead to question marks over the future of Max Verstappen – who clinched victory in Bahrain

While Horner defiantly holds on to his £8million-a-year job, Max is Jos’s trump card in this high-stakes game. No team on the planet would want to lose the services of a driver who gilds even the nonpareil car crafted by the supreme designer in Formula One history, Adrian Newey.

Yes, perhaps several drivers currently on the grid could win a world championship in it, but none could dominate as readily or emphatically as the Dutch magician. Who else could have won all but three races last season? Or put together an unprecedented 10 successive victories? Or sharpen his elbows to razors in the heat of battle on such occasions as he needs to?

Arguably not even Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time world champion. For now, and the foreseeable future, Max is the best there is.

So Jos, a former team-mate at Benetton of Michael Schumacher, with whom the Verstappens holidayed when Max was a kid, has a potent bargaining tool.

But, and here is the fascinating conundrum, what if Jos is not granted Horner’s head on a plate: would Max look elsewhere for upcoming employment? Conjecture has already linked him to Mercedes. Hamilton is leaving at the end of the year to join Ferrari for a last hurrah, opening up a seat there.

Grist is added to the rumour mill by the fact that Jos dined with Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff last week in Bahrain ahead of the opening race. It might just have been a meeting of old friends as Jos claims, though, it must be underlined, his relationship with Wolff soured in 2021, when Max was in hospital as Hamilton celebrated victory at the British Grand Prix after their coming together at Copse.

It deteriorated further in the aftermath of the decider in Abu Dhabi, where Verstappen pipped his bitter rival to the title on the final lap after the maverick withdrawal of the safety car on a night that will never be forgotten.

Mercedes' Toto Wolff has stirred the pot since the scandal broke and called for transparency
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Mercedes’ Toto Wolff has stirred the pot since the scandal broke and called for transparency

Even though relations are much improved since two years ago, it is hard to entirely dislocate a Jos-Toto dinner from the furore unfolding at Red Bull, even if the prospect of Max leaving his racing home – hitherto a well-oiled example of near-perfection – to take his chances at a Mercedes team a long way short of its once-dominant peak are for now somewhat remote.

To underline the point, when Max won in Bahrain on Saturday, Mercedes’ George Russell was 47 seconds back and Hamilton 50 adrift.

For the moment, decamping to the Silver Arrows would seem a fool’s errand, and one that could only be welcomed in anger. It is the nuclear option.

There is also Max’s Red Bull contract that runs until 2028, though it is suggested there are break clauses that might permit a move in 2026.

Verstappen Snr, who turns 52 on Monday, will not be in Jeddah this week, instead returning to Belgium for a rally, his absence from the Formula One paddock no doubt a relief to him after the tension-stretching stint in Bahrain, when the Red Bull hospitality unit was a seething theatre of faux camaraderie. The warring factions looked each other in the eye and smiled. That might be because if they turned their backs they wouldn’t see the daggers coming.

The most extravagant demonstration of support came from Horner’s Spice Girl wife Geri. She walked with him into the paddock. They held hands and kissed. The celebrity couple are comforted by the belief that unless a new piece of evidence, or a leaked email revealing a new strand of complaint surfaces, Horner is relatively safe.

One hope for Jos as he wished Horner away was that the sport’s owners, Liberty Media in the guise of Formula One Management (FOM), and the regulators, the FIA, would intervene and investigate the claims themselves, or at least ask to see the internal report conducted by a KC on behalf of Red Bull Racing’s parent company, Red Bull GmbH, that exonerated him last week.

This seems unlikely to happen. The FIA, under president Mohammad Ben Sulayem, are quietly siding with Horner. FOM are silent bordering on publicly invisible.

Horner and his wife Geri (left) put on a public display of unity despite his texting scandal
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Horner and his wife Geri (left) put on a public display of unity despite his texting scandal

Horner has refused to comment on potential motives for those responsible for leaking texts
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Horner has refused to comment on potential motives for those responsible for leaking texts

Max’s views are not explicitly known. He is believed to be in general support of his father’s stance. Tellingly, he refused on four occasions in press conferences over the past weekend to offer Horner unconditional backing.

He merely explained that he thought that in performance terms, his boss did an outstanding job. There was the whiff of faint praise about his approval.

Red Bull issued a statement last night in response to Jos’s comments in Mail Sport, saying: ‘There are no issues here. The team are united and we are focused on racing.’

Which even by the standards of recent days takes some believing.

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