Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Could Red Bull civil war really trigger shock Verstappen F1 switch to Mercedes?

Despite it being the only story in town in Formula 1 right now, very few people know what's really going on behind the scenes with Christian Horner at Red Bull.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

One thing is sure though: this saga is far from over, and the ultimate end game may not become clear for quite some time yet.

Ever since the controversy first blew up last month, there had been speculation that this stretched far beyond being an internal matter involving Horner and a female employee.

From the off, there was talk of this being a wider power play that involved some of the key management pillars within the Red Bull organisation.

After all, the entire thing had gone public only after the Austrian Red Bull energy drinks company had uncharacteristically put an official statement out.

For a brand widely known to have a policy of saying not one word more than it needs to when it comes to press statements, blowing the thing out into the open offered food for thought about there being more to this than meets the eye.

As the saga developed, word spread that this had morphed into something far wider and was now a battle for control and influence between the Austrian side of the Red Bull company and its Thai majority owner Chalerm Yoovidhya.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this was Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko and the Verstappen camp of Max and Jos, who each had their own opinions about what they felt should happen.

Businessman Chalerm Yoovidhya, Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, Geri Horner celebrate in Parc Ferme

Businessman Chalerm Yoovidhya, Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, Geri Horner celebrate in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

Plus, we had to throw into the mix the influence of Red Bull's major corporate partners like Ford and Oracle, although it is hard to work out which side of the fence they were sitting on.

On one hand, some have claimed there was boardroom angst over the companies potentially getting tarnished by the ties to the mess at Red Bull. However, others have suggested that their biggest concern was actually potentially losing Horner, whose influence and appeal to the wider world were key factors in driving them to get involved in the first place.

A takedown campaign

For a few short hours after Wednesday's announcement by Red Bull that Horner had been cleared by an independent investigation, it seemed that things would settle down as attention would quickly shift back to the fortunes of the team's RB20 on track.

But this idea was blown out of the water halfway through second practice on Thursday evening when two anonymous emails were sent to senior F1 personnel – including FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, team principals and media.

In the emails was a tranche of WhatsApp messages and images that were alleged to be central to the investigation.

Although the veracity of the dossier has not been confirmed - and there have been rumours that a second document release is on its way - the real significance is that it shows there are now individuals deliberately manoeuvring to take Horner down.

The real question though is, who and why?

Those involved have to have close ties to the Red Bull organisation and team – either professionally or personally – to have had access to evidence that it is understood was handed to investigators for analysis.

A lot of paddock gossip has surrounded Jos Verstappen, who is known not to have always seen eye-to-eye with Horner over various things that have happened since Max joined the Red Bull organisation.

His dramatic comments on Saturday night, made to The Daily Mail, certainly leave us in no doubt that he falls into the camp that wants Horner out.

"There's tension here while he remains in position," said the Dutchman. "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."

Jos Verstappen

Jos Verstappen

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

But there is a world of difference between wanting something to happen and being a perpetrator to make it happen.

And Verstappen has been at pains to rubbish the idea that he has been behind a smear campaign or the email drops.

"That wouldn't make sense," he added. "Why would I do that when Max is doing so well here?"

Opportunity calls

Whether he is a passenger or driver in all that is happening cannot be confirmed right now. However, the events are putting Verstappen Sr in a position to capitalise on there potentially being a change at the top of Red Bull.

And, amid the crisis within the world champion squad, it has also opened up – in the Piranha Club that is F1 – opportunities for others to gain too.

Perhaps one of the more interesting theories being bandied about is that what is going on at Red Bull involves a real big-picture play surrounding senior staff contracts and Red Bull's own long-term future in F1.

It is widely accepted that Horner's presence in Red Bull has been a critical element in giving many senior staff at the team a sense of security.

Indeed, it is understood that a number of top personnel – including chief technology officer Adrian Newey – have clauses in their contracts that allow them to leave if Horner is gone.

George Russell, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team, pole man Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, in Parc Ferme

George Russell, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team, pole man Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

It would not be a surprise that such a clause exists in Verstappen's deal too, which locks him down to the team until 2028.

So, if somehow there was a desire for individuals to get out of the current deal - either to renegotiate terms or go elsewhere - then a Horner exit could open the door on it.

From Verstappen's perspective, being a free agent could allow him to agree on a fresh contract on more favourable terms – be it for more money (as he is a much bigger superstar than when he first signed up), better marketing rights, or more flexibility.

Or there could even be the prospect of a move elsewhere to forge a new path in his career. After all, Jos Verstappen's comments make it now almost untenable that his son and Horner can both continue without something changing.

In the background, there could certainly be grounds to think the grass may be greener elsewhere long term.

What if, as F1 heads to new engine rules in 2026, rumours are true that point to a change in the competitive order – and potentially Red Bull's power unit not delivering the kind of performance figures that other manufacturers are set to reach?

That could leave Verstappen helpless to avoid knowing that the current run of success he is enjoying could come to an abrupt end from 2026 - unless of course Horner is gone and he can jump ship.

Should Verstappen become a free agent, then there would be no shortage of rival teams interested in taking him – and the rumour mill has already pointed in one clear direction: Mercedes.

The German manufacturer had been interested in Verstappen when he was in the junior categories, but it lost out to Red Bull because it could not offer him a seat in F1 machinery at the time.

Seeing the Dutchman slip from Mercedes' grasp has long played on Mercedes boss Toto Wolff's mind, and is influencing his desire to not let junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli go.

Jos Verstappen with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team

Jos Verstappen with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team

Photo by: Jon Noble

As Wolff said recently about Red Bull grabbing Verstappen: "We lost the young driver, and you can see how successful he has become."

With Mercedes having a cockpit available for 2025, and it perhaps being too early for Antonelli, Mercedes would clearly jump at the chance of Verstappen.

He would be a superstar replacement for Lewis Hamilton; with the speed and global popularity that would act as a tremendous boost to the Mercedes brand.

Furthermore, if Mercedes could snatch one of Red Bull's biggest assets, it would help make itself stronger and its rival weaker: a double whammy.

It probably was not a coincidence that in the paddock, shortly after Red Bull had unleashed its dominant performance in the Bahrain Grand Prix, Jos Verstappen was spotted deep in conversation with Wolff.

It is understood not to have been the first chat they had over the Bahrain GP weekend. There were rumours of a dinner meeting on Friday night too, even if Wolff insists he is not hatching a plot to lure Verstappen on board.

Wanting a fast car

For now, the Horner situation is an unknown variable and whether or not he remains in place is hard to predict, especially if the campaign to discredit him gets more aggressive in the forthcoming days.

And no matter how defiant Horner is about staying in place, his fate will almost certainly be decided in the boardrooms of Red Bull and its corporate sponsors who will be paying a watching brief over all that is happening.

Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, celebrate in Parc Ferme

Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, celebrate in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Wolff too is observing from the sidelines, and will not be blind to the possibility that circumstances could play out that hand him an unexpected gift.

But equally, he knows he has to get his own house in order because while Verstappen may be attractive to Mercedes, the desire to move there will not be so great if the squad's F1 car does not show better performance.

Wolff himself was asked on Saturday night in Bahrain if there was a chance that Verstappen could drive at Mercedes in 2025 – and he gave a carefully considered response.

"I think the driver will always choose the quickest car," he said. "That is fundamentally what it's all about. At the moment the Red Bull is the quickest car, so that will obviously be the priority."

Read into that answer what you will. But it was not a 'no'.

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article 10 things we learned at the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix
Next article Alonso: Aston Martin back to normal after exceptional Bahrain F1 qualifying

Top Comments

There are no comments at the moment. Would you like to write one?

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe