Christian Horner’s career in motorsport began behind the wheel in racing’s lower series, before his focus was drawn to the pit wall rather than the track. Having founded an F3000 team to advance his own racing, Horner was smart enough to read the omens in the timing sheets, and by his mid-20s he’d hung up his helmet to focus on building the feeder series’ most successful team.
When Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz pushed forward with his own plan for F1 team ownership in 2005, Horner was the obvious choice to head the squad. Then the youngest team principal in the sport, Horner rapidly found acceptance at the top table thanks to a mixture of determination, flexibility and political nous. He has been at the helm for every success in Red Bull Racing’s history.
THE RED BULLETIN: You were 31 when you were thrown in at the deep end of the shark-infested waters of Formula One. The big names back then were Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley, Flavio Briatore, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis… all men twice your age. How does one earn respect in that environment?
CHRISTIAN HORNER: It’s true, those men were all well established. I listened to them, and if I opened my mouth in a discussion it was because I had something to say. Don’t speak for the sake of speaking: that’s a good piece of advice for starters.
Wasn’t the age difference a problem?
Not for me, nor for those above or below me. I’m convinced that you’re given respect for what you do, not because of your age. You can’t demand respect. You have to earn it, repeatedly.
OK, the drivers do that on the track, but how does it work in business?
Keep your word. Stick to your principles. Be trustworthy. Have the courage to be unpopular. Stand up for something when it’s important to you.
And that approach alone is enough to garner respect?
I always like to tell a story on that very subject from the early days. I wasn’t even 30, but I had a team in Formula 3000, the rookie series one rung below Formula One. The number of teams was due to be reduced from 25 to 12 the following season, and my team was on the list of those to be culled. So what did I do? I wrote a sharply worded fax to Bernie Ecclestone, explaining that his behaviour was in contravention of EU law and that I would leave no stone unturned to prevent him abusing his dominant position in the market. Nobody else had the guts to say it, but I did. I had nothing to lose, after all. So there I was, taking on the most powerful man in the sport.
And what happened next?
He was on the phone within 45 minutes. God, I was nervous. “What the hell’s all this about?” he ranted. And then he told me that I was right on all counts, but that he still wouldn’t give me an inch. Obviously I couldn’t just let that go, so I started to fight. We ended up finding a solution: I was allowed to take over another team, and from then on I negotiated all the team positions with Ecclestone. I’d won his respect..
Because you had the guts to come out all guns blazing?
Because I stood up for what I believed in. That impressed him. And I still respect the way he does business, even now.
Is selfishness conducive to respect?
Sometimes it’s worth putting your head above the parapet and keeping an eye on the bigger picture, and sometimes that works against you.
Let me give you an example: the ugly tail-fins on the current crop of cars. They offend my aesthetic sense, which is why I’d like them to disappear. The other teams were all ears when I suggested it at the start of the season: “What’s he up to? What personal advantage is he hoping to get out of this?” Ten years ago, the old guard would still have said, “Great idea, young man. Let’s do it.” Maybe that’s being shown a sort of respect – the idea that there must be a hidden agenda behind everything you do. [Ed’s note: the shark fins are now set to be banned for 2018, along with T-wings.]
Do you have to take risks in order to earn respect?
Yes, but calculated risks. Be very daring, but don’t ever be stupid. Oh yes, I’ve taken plenty of risks in this business. But have I ever taken too many? Never.
How do you learn that?
It’s instinctive. I left school at 18, and after that I just went with my gut. I became a racing driver even though I had no money. The cheapest way of doing it was buying myself a car on credit and hiring mechanics rather than joining a ready-made team. All of a sudden, I was team principal. I ended up in the management position by accident. But from that point on, I did everything I could to keep my head above water. Then I was hurled into Formula One and I had no idea if it would work out and how long it would be for. So, yes, it was all risky. But what did I have to lose?
What did people see in the young Christian Horner that made them trust him with the leadership of a company of several hundred employees?
Helmut Marko was a rival of mine in Formula 3000. I beat him and his team two years in a row. He’s a very experienced racing driver. He knew the means I had at my disposal when I beat him. We had respect for each other. So rivals became partners.
Although, to start with, you were only given the job as team principal on a trial basis…
Honestly, though, was I meant to lose sleep worrying about that? There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of self-confidence.
Would it be fair to say that you were a decent racing driver, but not spectacular. Even Max Verstappen’s mum beat you…
But hang on a minute – she even beat David Coulthard!
OK, what I wanted to say was that decent racing driver Christian Horner changed jobs, but stayed in the same business. Why did he achieve greater acceptance in his new role than in the previous one?
Because I understood that people are key to everything. As I wasn’t good enough myself, I did everything I could to get the best engineers and mechanics on board for my team. These people don’t answer positions-vacant ads; you have to track them down yourself and talk them into coming to work for you. My people could tell that I wasn’t one to compromise. Your rivals also pick up on that attitude. When I was team owner, I was the one who went out to get pizza for the mechanics in the evening, or who washed the wheels on the cars.
Why was that?
So that they could all see I didn’t think anything was beneath me, and that I would do anything necessary to help the team. That’s the sort of thing you think about when it’s going to be another long night and you’ve still got to get stuck in and you can see that the lights are off in all the other garages.
So you earn your team’s respect by leading by example?
You can’t demand that people do things you’re not willing to do yourself. I’m totally convinced of that. You’ll only earn respect once you respect the people around you and the work they do. And another thing: if you’re in a leadership role, you must always give clear instructions. Companies don’t respect a leader who dithers.