Red Bull’s uneasy F1 truce faces immediate pressure

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Red Bull has fashioned an uneasy truce in a bid to install calm around a Formula 1 team that remains extremely vulnerable to divisions among its senior leadership and has its embattled team principal facing a fresh headache.

F1’s 2024 season resumes at the Australian Grand Prix this weekend following what Christian Horner likely felt was a welcome break from the relentless scrutiny that dogged him and the world champion team for a solid month, beginning before its car launch and spanning the pre-season test and season-opening double-header.

But even the first in-season ‘week off’ of 2024 could not offer a full reprieve, as reports emerged of Horner’s accuser appealing Red Bull’s decision to dismiss their grievance against him, following an external investigation into Horner’s conduct – and of the accuser separately complaining formally with the FIA.

It was a continuation of what has been at the heart of a wider Red Bull rift becoming a massive and hugely controversial off-track story. The only difference to the preceding weeks is that these stories did not emerge with the entire F1 circus convened in one place.

That changes now that the paddock’s back together in Melbourne, where Horner will face more questions and scrutiny despite his protestations at the previous race in Jeddah that it was time for everybody to move on.

The Saudi weekend ended with Red Bull Racing’s hierarchy preaching unity and the parent company insisting it was happy with its management. Helmut Marko wasn’t leaving, Horner wasn’t at war with him (or anyone within Red Bull itself for that matter), and Red Bull’s Thai majority owner hadn’t been convinced by the Austrian side to stop backing Horner and oust him either.

Horner remains in charge for the Australian GP and, we should assume for now, beyond. So that part is clearly true. Little else seems so definitive.

The team on the ground is, it seems, unperturbed by any part of this. To paint Red Bull Racing itself – including the shop floor workers in Milton Keynes and the mechanics working trackside – in a state of total division is inaccurate. But it was never about the rank and file.

The leadership is on rocky foundations. Elements of this organisation still cannot co-exist long-term without a much more convincing reconciliation that many believe is out of the question. Hence an uneasy truce.

Whether it’s Horner vs Marko, Horner vs Team Verstappen, an ownership-level power wrangle – whatever the factions, some if not all of this remains a live issue. It has just been allowed to become dormant between races. F1 resuming in Australia means the spotlight will return, just as the single issue that seems to have been a central point in all of this is flaring up again.

It’s not just Horner and Red Bull coming under fresh pressure though. Sooner or later F1’s main stakeholders need to stop staying quiet.

Quite what is engulfing the governing body the FIA, only a few people really know the full extent of. But the emergence of whistleblower accounts of interference on key matters by president Mohammed Ben Sulayem followed reports of his attempt to get Max Verstappen to give Horner a public vote of confidence over his ongoing scandal – having so far kept quiet about the complaint against Horner.

The unofficial line from the FIA and F1 itself since this has started, even through its various escalations, has been non-interventionist. That’s despite suggestions that both parties wanted to see the report Red Bull received following the investigation into Horner, and were rebuffed on confidentiality grounds.

Red Bull’s lack of transparency tied their hands to a degree. They could not act or comment on an internal matter without the facts. But many of Horner’s critics, including rivals in the paddock, feel the solution is for the FIA to conduct its own review.

There might be a window to do that now Horner’s accuser has reportedly complained to the FIA formally. That invites a direct response – although despite Ben Sulayem preaching transparency himself, this is not a regime that particularly inspires confidence on such matters.

Whatever the FIA chooses to do or not do, and say or not say, it has now been pulled more directly into the narrative, just as Horner’s accuser appeals Red Bull’s decision and attempts to reopen that case.

The topic so naively thought to have been brushed aside on the eve of the season in Bahrain is very much still a live one. Which leaves Horner and Red Bull hoping to avoid another flare-up not just this weekend but for the foreseeable future.

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