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Red Bull’s Crisis becomes F1’s main event

March 20, 2024

In this week’s Member Insights piece, David Alexander, MD of Calacus PR spotlights the crisis communication in F1.

The controversial first title win for Max Verstappen at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was a watershed moment for Formula One. 

The Belgian has dominated the competition since then, securing three Drivers’ Championships and 29 out of the past 34 races since mid-2022.

Literally and figuratively, Red Bull is a well-oiled machine, with the company thriving on the track and tightly controlling what information is released into the public domain.

That approach has been threatened since early February, when news broke that Red Bull was undertaking an internal investigation into allegations of ‘inappropriate, controlling behaviour’ by Team Principal Christian Horner.

Horner is something of a pantomime villain in Formula One, unafraid to push technical boundaries and happy to clash with his rivals in search of success.

While acknowledging that an investigation was going on, Red Bull failed to follow a basic rule of crisis communications – do not leave a large information void that can be filled by third parties, lead to speculation and ultimately make the situation worse.

It took two weeks for Formula One and governing body the FIA to make statements, which said little other than that they would be monitoring developments, while Ford, who will become Red Bull’s engine partner in 2026, were more assertive in their demands for a prompt resolution.

In a letter to the Red Bull team, CEO Jim Farley expressed his displeasure with “the unresolved allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Red Bull Racing leadership.”

He said: “As we have indicated previously, without satisfactory response, Ford’s values are non-negotiable. It is imperative that our racing partners share and demonstrate a genuine commitment to those same values. My team and I are available at any time to discuss this matter. We remain insistent on, and hopeful, for a resolution we can all stand behind.”

On the eve of the new F1 season, Red Bull’s investigation dismissed the case against Horner and said in a statement: “The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned. Red Bull will continue striving to meet the highest workplace standards.”

No details of the inquiry were made public, about the process, the legal team nor Horner’s defence and none of the investigation’s conclusions or recommendations were forthcoming.

For such a high-profile case to lack transparency inevitably gave rise to accusations of a whitewash aimed at moving on as swiftly as possible, when all the pithy statements did were raise more questions than were answered.

If Red Bull thought that the new Formula One season would see the investigation forgotten about as fans and media moved on, they were very much mistaken.

After the investigation, an anonymous whistleblower leaked a file of unverified emails, images and messages, purported to be from Horner to a female third party, to a wide range of media, Formula One, the FIA, and the sport’s nine other team leaders.

Horner, having previously refused to comment beyond protesting his innocence and confidence that the investigation would confirm as much, went on the offensive.

He said: “The only reason this has gained so much attention is because of the leakage and the attention that there has been drawn in the media. What has happened then after that is that others have looked to take advantage of it. F1 is a competitive business and elements have looked to benefit from it and that is perhaps the not so pretty side of out industry.”

Could Horner expect his rivals to remain silent, when he as previously been so forthright about other issues that have arisen? And do other team principals such as Mercedes’ Toto Wolff and the McLaren CEO Zak Brown not have a right to comment, particularly given that the tawdry episode has dragged their sport into the gutter?

No wonder that they have urged more transparency, while Formula One and the FIA have requested to see the findings of the investigation.

What the crisis also exposed was the fractious divisions within Red Bull which threaten to hinder its dominance just when it looked as if an era of supremacy was inevitable.

Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz, who died last year, left his 49% share to his family, while Thai pharmacist Chaleo Yoovidhya owns a controlling 51%, with Horner’s future very much a point of conflict between them.

Yoovidhya backs Horner, no doubt convinced by the Englishman’s track record of building a dominant race team that he has led since 2005, while Mateschitz’s family are said to want him out. 

Matters took another turn when Red Bull’s long-term special adviser Helmut Marko, known for his indiscretion towards media and other Formula One stakeholders, came under the spotlight with initial reports suggesting he may be suspended.

That triggered emphatic vocal support from ally Max Verstappen, who warned that his future was closely linked with that of Marko.

After qualifying, Verstappen was asked what he thought about the threats to Marko and responded: “My loyalty to [Marko] is very big. It’s very important that he stays within the team. If such an important pillar falls away, that’s not good for my situation as well. So, for me, Helmut has to stay, for sure.”

Not only was that a clear threat to the Red Bull senior leadership, it was also in stark contrast to Verstappen’s carefully worded answer when asked about Horner’s position.

Whether he was speaking as a proxy for his son or not, Jos Verstappen then made it clear that he saw Horner’s position as untenable, that the Horner controversy was “driving people apart” and that the team would “explode” if their principal remained.

“In the press conference Horner gave the other day it was all about him and his problems when we should be talking about Max, the car, his performance and the race. I’ve already said I think it is causing problems if he stays.

“There is tension here while he remains in position. The team is in danger of being torn apart. It can’t go on the way it is. It will explode. He is playing the victim, when he is the one causing the problems.

“I think it’s too late for Christian to say ‘leave me alone’ but he has the support of the Thai owner so I think he will stay for the rest of the season. I said it would bad if he stayed, it really isn’t good for the team, this whole situation.

“But the most important thing for me is that Max is happy. That’s what counts for me. I just want him to be happy.”

It can’t have helped Red Bull fans that Verstappen was linked with a move to Mercedes amid the in-fighting within the team, with Horner admitting that they could not force an unhappy driver to remain regardless of a long contract.

To make matters worse for Red Bull, they chose International Women’s Day to suspend the woman at the centre of the controversy, with the team again offering no detail for the grounds of her suspension. 

Could there be a more effective way to remind women in motor sport that they need to stay in their lane? 

Unsurprisingly, the accuser then lodged an official complaint about Horner’s behaviour with the FIA’s ethics committee, which the BBC reported was not the first complaint made to the governing body amid concerns that Red Bull might try to cover the story up.

It was left to Lewis Hamilton, who has urged more diversity and better governance within the sport, to underline the problems the Horner crisis has caused.

He said: “As someone who loves the sport it’s definitely disappointing to see what’s going on right now. I think transparency is really key and I’m really, really hoping to see some progress moving forwards. 

“We always have to do more to try to make the sport and the environment people work in feel safe and inclusive. It will be really interesting to see how it’s dealt with in terms of the effect it may or may not have on the sport moving forwards. It’s a really important moment for the sport to make sure that we stand true to our values.”

The information vacuum, coupled with a lack of leadership from the sport’s governance serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of reputation in top-level sport and Red Bull’s apparent lack of preparation for an internal issue when it has previously been readied for external issues combat.

The lack of transparency and suspension of the complainant have shown a lack of awareness, and a somewhat tone-deaf strategy that has raised questions about the team’s integrity and damaged Red Bull’s reputation with its partners and fans which extends way beyond motorsport.

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