Christian Horner

It is tempting to surmise that the winners and losers in the opulent, high-octane world of Formula One, undoubtedly the most seductively scientific of sporting contests, ultimately owe their diverging fortunes to the relative application of one commodity: technology. But Christian Horner, the team principal of the Red Bull Racing team, which won the 2010 Formula One World Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships (the latter through German driver Sebastian Vettel) and which looks set to repeat the feat this year, prefers to focus on an equally subtle science: teamwork.

The technological secrets of Red Bull’s success may lurk somewhere in the aerodynamic carbon-fibre chassis, “flexible” front wing and 2400CC Renault RS 27-2011 engine of their RB7 race car, the refrigerated super-computers at their Milton Keynes HQ or the streams of data blinking on their trackside telemetry monitors, but every innovation, advantage and strategy originates from the team’s 525 members of staff. Whether it is the driving skills of Vettel and Mark Webber, the creative genius of chief technical officer Adrian Newey, the dedication of the mechanics, the intricate choreography of the pit crew or the brainpower of the pit wall team, Formula One remains, according to the boss of the best team on the grid, a people business.

“We are tremendously proud of what we have achieved in just six years, but there is no secret,” 37-year-old Horner tells PODIUM on the eve of the Italian Grand Prix (which Vettel wins). “It is all down to the people. Working collectively and efficiently is fundamentally the most important factor, along with stability. The essential quality I look for in staff is the ability to work within a team environment. That’s what has made Red Bull successful. We have a straightforward vision and goal and everybody involved is rowing in tandem to achieve that one vision.”

The young Red Bull chief’s own journey to the top has taken place at tyre-melting speed. Born in Leamington Spa in 1973, and educated at Warwick School, Horner, the second of three brothers, grew up with a passion for motorsport. He remembers crawling under a fence at Silverstone to catch a glimpse of his idol Nigel Mansell performing a tyre test. “He was one of my heroes,” Horner says. “He was very exciting to watch. There was always some drama surrounding him and he was certainly the stand-out driver of my childhood.”

As a young driver, Horner competed in the British Formula Renault Championship as well as British Formulas Two and Three. In 1997, he moved up to Formula 3000, the precursor to GP2, by founding the Arden team with his father Garry, but 21st and 33rd place finishes in his first two years convinced Horner that his future lay on the pit wall, not in the cockpit. From 1999, aged just 25, he focused on managing his team and achieved three consecutive constructors’ championships between 2002 and 2004.

“That was when I learned the need to work as a team,” he recalls. “I realised you have got to have the right people in the right areas for the plan to succeed. Whether that is a GP2, F3000 or Formula One, you need the right engineers, the right technicians, the right drivers, the right designers, the right facilities and the right engine partner. All those aspects need to come together to deliver results.”

I don’t really have a role model… I admire people like Sir Alex Ferguson but I certainly don’t have a mentor

It is clear that Horner forged his own path to success instead of imitating others. When asked about people he admires in business or sport, he momentarily struggles. “Oh, crikey,” he says, before a long pause. “I don’t really have a role model. I have learned a lot from Dietrich (Mateschitz, owner of Red Bull) and there are lots of people I admire—like Alex Ferguson—but I certainly don’t have a mentor.”

Horner’s ability to lead a team, solve problems, entice talent and delegate effectively attracted the attention of Mateschitz, the Austrian billionaire (valued at $5bn by Forbes magazine in 2011) who co-founded Red Bull, the energy drink manufacturers, in 1984. When, on 15 November 2004, Red Bull purchased the assets of the struggling Jaguar Racing team on the final day of its sale by the Ford Motor Company, Mateschitz appointed Horner to lead the newly formed Red Bull Racing team.

The young team principal began work with the keys to a Milton Keynes factory, some leftover car designs and a group of talented but disillusioned staff. “Our target from day one was always to build a winning team,” says Horner. “That was Dietrich’s vision when he hired me. Obviously my immediate challenge was recognising where the strengths and weaknesses of the team were and then addressing them. The most important value in my relationship with Dietrich is trust. He took a risk on me at a young age and hopefully I have repaid the faith. He is a tremendous guy to work for. He is very supportive, he sets high targets, but he is also very fair.”

Horner gradually overhauled the culture of the team, injecting creativity and belief. “We had to create a winning mindset,” he says. “In the team’s previous guise as Jaguar, there had been many changes in management, technical direction and strategic direction. But Red Bull provided a new, stable environment. We set clear goals in each area and matched those objectives by investing in the facility, in tools or in personnel. It is absolutely true to say that a totally different culture exists today.”

Between 2005 and 2008 the team didn’t finish higher than fifth in the constructors’ championship, but Horner was pursuing a long-term strategy. Central to this was recruitment of talented personnel, in particular signing Adrian Newey from McLaren as chief technical officer, chief designer Rob Marshall from Renault and head of aerodynamics Peter Prodromou, also from McLaren. Newey, who had designed championship-winning cars for Williams F1™ and McLaren, was attracted by a reported salary of £6m ($9.5m) per year and the unique atmosphere Horner had created. Discussing an approach from Ferrari earlier this year, Newey remarked: “F1™ is a people sport, not a marque sport.”

Red Bull’s relaxed team atmosphere is something Horner has deliberately cultivated. The team’s humble HQ, located on a Milton Keynes industrial estate, is strikingly more informal than McLaren’s Norman Foster-designed glass and steel Technology Centre and the team’s “Energy Station” motorhome is a riot of DJs, celebrities and Jägerbombs.

You will see a lot more people in jeans and T-shirts here than at McLaren or Ferrari

“We have fostered the Red Bull spirit and that is lived throughout this team,” Horner says. “It’s a friendly and relaxed environment, but also a very competitive and determined one. You will see a lot more people in jeans and T-shirts here than at McLaren or Ferrari but I see this as a matter of creating an environment in which people feel comfortable and you bring the best out of them.”

The boss is happy to join in the fun. After losing a bet with Martin Brundle in 2006, he hurled himself into a Monaco swimming pool wearing only a Superman cape to celebrate the team’s first podium finish by former driver David Coulthard. Is he less likely to make bets these days? “Absolutely,” he laughs. “I have learned my lesson from that.”

In 2009 the team finishes a close second behind Brawn in the constructors’ championship, with Vettel finishing second in the driver’s championship. But the intricate planning, talent recruitment and team-building tactics, backed up by a strong budget (around £160m in 2010, but still some way below Ferrari’s £248m), paid dividends last year with Red Bull winning both the constructors’ and drivers’ championships as Vettel finished first and Webber third. It was a victory Horner credits as much to his drivers’ talents as to the RB6, which proved to be the best-handling car on the grid.

“No matter what the technology is, the best drivers will always rise to the top and over the different generations of the sport, that is what has always happened,” he says.

The season was not without incident, most notably when Vettel and Webber crashed into each other at the Turkish Grand Prix, which gifted McLaren a 1-2 finish. Horner dealt with any simmering tension by chairing a calm, open discussion when the drivers’ emotions had subsided. He believes honest discussion is the best solution to working conflicts, but is confident that having two ambitious drivers provides vital competition, momentum and focus.

Both drivers are at a different stage in their careers and they are very likeable people

”You have two guys who are pushing each other—obviously very hard—to bring the best out of each other,” says Horner. “Both drivers are at a different stage in their careers and they are very likeable people. Sebastian has grown up within the Red Bull family and he is a phenomenal talent and also a very nice guy and easy to spend time with. Mark is at a different stage in his life but is an equally determined character (his idol is Roy Keane) and that is a very positive dynamic within the team.”

This year, Red Bull are dominating the 2011 constructors’ championship and Vettel and Webber are first and second in the drivers’ championship. A repeat of the 2010 double looks likely. Has it been a very different challenge for Horner? “Yes, previously it was all about getting there,” he says. “We know 2009 was a year of evolution for Red Bull—we won our first race, but just missed out on the constructors’ and driver’s championships.

“We went one better last year, taking on the might of McLaren and Ferrari. This year we have managed to consolidate on that performance. 2011 has been much more involved because it is much harder to maintain performance when you suddenly go from being the hunter to the hunted. That brings a new and different dynamic. I’m very, very pleased with the way the whole team has dealt with that pressure.”

Like every team in F1™, Red Bull have been affected by the global economic crisis, but Horner recognises that the cost-cutting may have helped his team peg back the F1™ giants: “There were a lot of cost-saving measures brought in during the financial crisis with the restriction of testing and engines being limited to eight per car per year, which is an enormous difference to where Formula One was in previous years. Costs have been significantly reduced under the governance of the Resource Restriction Agreement (RRA), which was voluntarily entered into by the teams. But that has been absolutely fundamental in allowing Red Bull to achieve the kind of results we have.”

Citing the raft of technical and rule changes in F1™ in recent years, Horner adds: “I think any significant technical change does cost money so stability is the best way to control costs. Inevitably some regulations are needed to be revised or tidied up, as with the double diffuser and the F-Duct, but obviously whenever you change regulations, there does tend to be an element of cost involved.”

With his team flying high, Horner is understandably enjoying the global roadshow of Formula One. “There are numerous races I enjoy—the historic events like Monaco and Silverstone and any of the big cities, such as Montreal and Melbourne, are enjoyable events,” he says. “I especially look forward to going to New Delhi this year for the first India Grand Prix.”

Many have questioned Red Bull’s long-term commitment to F1™, given that they don’t have road cars to market like Mercedes or Ferrari. Instead, the Red Bull company utilises its sponsorships as a powerful marketing tool to help sell over four billion cans of drink a year. They also own the Scuderia Toro Rosso F1™ team, football teams in Leipzig, Sao Paulo, Salzburg and New York, and sponsor over 500 individual extreme sports athletes.

Yet Horner is planning for the future, as evinced by tying down Newey and Vettel until 2014. “You can never afford to be complacent, so you don’t look too far ahead, but (prior to the Italian GP) we have 22 Grand Prix wins, 32 pole positions and won two championships so we are determined to build on those statistics,” he says. “But we absolutely don’t underestimate the heritage of Ferrari or the resources and strength of teams like McLaren and Mercedes.”

It is hard to imagine the grand old aristocracy of Formula One enjoying Red Bull’s rise to power. Is Horner close to the other team principals? “Ah, it is obviously a very competitive environment,” he says. “The teams have been working more collectively in recent years. We tend to keep ourselves to ourselves but come together when we need to. Inevitably it has been a bit uncomfortable for one or two other teams, but that is to be expected when you are involved in such a hugely competitive industry. And, of course, it is something we ourselves are very, very comfortable with.”

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Mark Bailey is a freelance sports journalist based in London