Red Bull's Christian Horner hits back at old Lewis Hamilton claim

Christian Horner hits back at Lewis Hamilton’s jibe that Red Bull are ‘just an energy drink’, insisting his team have proved they ‘absolutely can’ compete with McLaren and Ferrari as Max Verstappen looks to shock dominant Mercedes this season

  • Christian Horner has hit back at Lewis Hamilton’s old claims about Red Bull
  • British champion claimed manufacturer were ‘just an energy drinks company’ 
  • Hamilton said Red Bull were unable to compete with likes of McLaren and Ferrari
  • Red Bull’s Team Principal says they have proved they ‘absolutely can’ compete

How many of the Formula One giants are left? Bernie Ecclestone was dethroned, Max Mosley disrobed, Ron Dennis defenestrated, Flavio Briatore disgraced.

There is perhaps only one active survivor with a foot in that era and he is sitting in the Monaco paddock, behind him the sun a blinding ray off the Med, high above him the Grimaldi Palace — Christian Horner.

Ask Horner’s best man, Ecclestone, who most reminds him of the outsized characters with whom he built the sport, the spry 90-year-old says: ‘Those sort of people maybe aren’t round so much these days. But Christian is closest to them, 100 per cent.’

Christian Horner hit back at Lewis Hamilton’s old jibe that Red Bull are ‘just an energy drink’

The two men speak regularly. Horner — at 47 the longest serving team principal having once been the young newcomer in 2005, aged 31 — regularly picks up the phone to reach Ecclestone at his Swiss retreat in Gstaad.

‘Bernie’s in great shape,’ he reports. ‘He’s straight into the politics of the moment and giving his take on it all. As he says, “Just tell them to f*** off”.’

‘It’s great that Stefano (Domenicali, former Ferrari team boss and newly installed chief executive of F1) is talking to him. Bernie will be more present when Covid-related things allow. This is his business, and I think Stefano is smart enough to know that Bernie still has an encyclopaedic knowledge to draw on. Every significant deal over the last 40 years, Bernie has done. And you want him as an ally rather than an adversary.’

As Netflix viewers of the fly-on-the-wall Drive to Survive series are seeing, F1 is not only about racing; it’s about politics and intrigue, about machinations and, let’s be honest, a sprinkling of skulduggery.

Or as Horner puts it: ‘Netflix is bringing a whole new audience to the sport. A younger audience. An American audience, which is important. My 15-year-old step-daughter was never interested in it at all, but now she thinks, “Wow, Charles Leclerc is pretty hot”.’

Horner is hopeful Red Bull can compete all the way with Mercedes for the title this season

Leclerc topped the timesheets here in practice on Thursday. But if anyone is going to stop Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton winning on Sunday in the world’s most glamorous motor race, where the memory of Grace Kelly — Her Serene Highness — still stirs the senses, it is more likely to be Max Verstappen in the Red Bull than Leclerc in the Ferrari.

The best result Verstappen has managed here is fourth, but he has a very competitive car and one that is meant to suit the slow, cramped corners. Hamilton, on the other hand, has won in Monaco three times.

Horner said: ‘Max is driving the wheels off the car. There is all this bull**** about Red Bull being favourites this season. Mercedes are seven-times champions consecutively. Last year their car was dominant, this year’s car is a carry-over from that; yes the regulations affected them a bit, but you can see they still have a quicker car than us.

‘Max is doing an amazing job to extract as much from it as he is. He is the only one keeping Lewis honest. He just gets in and gives it 100 per cent. He is a bit Mansell-esque in that respect. He’s an attacking driver and doesn’t know any different. That’s what makes him so exciting.

‘He has passed Lewis four times this season, including when he had to hand the place back in Bahrain. He’s not afraid to do that. I don’t see anyone else who could.’

The Team Principal hailed Max Verstappen but denied claims Red Bull were favourites this year

I suggest George Russell, the 23-year-old Williams driver who stood in for a Covid-stricken Hamilton in Bahrain last year. Horner agrees. He mentions Leclerc, too, but nobody else.

So what about the driver market and next year’s line-ups? Who will partner Hamilton at Mercedes if the reigning champion stays on: Valtteri Bottas again or Russell, a member of the Silver Arrows’ young driver programme?

‘We have a contract with Max,’ says Horner, setting that straight. ‘It will be interesting to see what Toto (Wolff, his opposite number at Mercedes) does with his second seat. He’s a little bit conflicted because he manages both drivers (Bottas and Russell) as well as employs them. Who is he actually negotiating with?

‘When George jumped in the car in Bahrain and drove as well as he did, it was the best and worst thing he could have done.’

The subtext is that Russell might be a potentially destabilising factor at Mercedes, unwanted and unwelcome by Hamilton, compared to the docile Bottas.

Conversation comes back to Hamilton a few times, usually at my prompting, but Horner manoeuvres us there for a specific reason. He does not name Lewis, but says: ‘Red Bull, as a certain famous British driver once said, is just an energy drink. And they can’t compete with McLaren and Ferrari. I think we have demonstrated we absolutely can.’

Red Bull were the constructors to beat after Sebastian Vettel clinched four titles from 2010-13

Four successive championships, constructors’ and drivers’, through Sebastian Vettel between 2010-13 make that point. But Red Bull are starting to reconstruct an exciting new phase — as manufacturers of their own engines, once partners Honda depart the sport.

They have been recruiting from Mercedes, makers of the benchmark powertrains for the past decade or more. It will lead to a 300-strong workforce in Red Bull’s Milton Keynes factory, and Horner is understandably excited.

‘We’re taking control of our own destiny,’ he says. ‘The only other team that has their chassis and engine departments under the same roof is Ferrari. Mercedes are split between Brackley and Brixworth and have different shareholdings now. It’s a long-term strategic advantage for Red Bull.’

Back to Monaco and the race?

‘All cycles come to an end,’ he says. ‘Mercedes won’t win for ever. That is the only thing we can be sure of. I can’t guarantee they won’t win this race. But they won’t always win it.’

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