F1’s state of disrepute a much-needed wake-up call to the powers that be


The 2024 Formula One season has only just begun, with both the curtain raising Bahrain and Saudi Arabian Grands Prix run and won by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen – though it feels as if it’s been running an age with the unprecedented multitude of controversies that the sport finds itself engulfed in.

Yes, the shock announcements in the pre-season of seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton to Ferrari in 2025, the exit of Guenther Steiner as Team Principal of Haas and the rejection of Andretti’s prospective F1 entry sent us all into a collective frenzy – though pales in comparison to what followed.

On the eve of car launch season and pre-season testing, did the reports begin emanating of allegations against Red Bull team boss Christian Horner of inappropriate conduct. It is a story that has continued to evolve; from the statement by Red Bull GmBH on February 9 that an external investigation would be conducted, to February 28 where a subsequent statement announced, “The grievance has been dismissed.”

On the weekend of the Bahrain Grand Prix, a Google Drive link was leaked by email to select journalists and key F1 stakeholders such as CEO Stefano Domenicali and Horner’s fellow team bosses. A deliberate character assassination attempt – by whoever was dissatisfied by the outcome of the investigation to make such a seismic play to credit the Briton.

Christian Horner ahead of the Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on November 26, 2023. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Forward to the Saudi weekend and there’s further headlines being thrusted into the mainstream; between the Jos Verstappen commentary being stoked by the man himself, to Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr. Helmut Marko’s claims that he’d be suspended.

Horner’s innocence can be debated endlessly based off the information available and indeed without concrete evidence or a confession of guilt, there is nothing to be gained from speculating on this forum.

The many social media profiles that exist as false prophets parading ‘verified’ badges on X – which can be bought for as little as $3 per month – sadly dilute and devalue the work of the seasoned journalists present at every race weekend.

What needs to be thrusted into the spotlight, however, is workplace culture. Whether it’s a multimillion-dollar racing team or your local McDonalds, coercive behaviour and conduct is unacceptable, especially in a time where power trips and privilege become (rightly so) more and more scrutinised.

F1 Academy Managing Director Susie Wolff coined perhaps one of the more under-appreciated phrases on Netflix’s Drive to Survive in season 4 with, “You need to be ruthless, you need to be competitive, but I don’t believe to be successful you need to be an asshole.”

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Formula One is hailed as the pinnacle of motorsport and pioneer of technology and innovation. It would be remiss not to see it as a platform also for setting an example of model leadership from its team leaders – as the case with drivers such as Hamilton, who continues to champion the pursuit for diversity and inclusivity amongst the sport’s many different facets.

While it can be laughed about in jest in some circles, the echoes of team radio communication during crucial moments of the 2021 title fight between Horner, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff and former FIA race director Michael Masi all display a form of coercion, with both principals desperate for a yield in their favour and willing to do whatever it takes – even if it means traversing a moral wilderness.

There’s also no denying that Formula One as an entity has been brought into disrepute over this saga and for Domenicali, Liberty Media and all its stakeholders the potential risks that this could bring, should it continue to escalate are catastrophic. Look no further to the warning shot-like messaging from Red Bull’s future engine partner in Ford.

CEO of the Blue Oval, Jim Farley, prior to the conclusion of the investigation had bluntly stated that “we are frustrated at the lack of transparency surrounding this matter with us.” As well as then emphasising “it is imperative that our racing partners share and demonstrate a genuine commitment to those values,” referring to Ford’s values given they’re essentially still a family-owned business despite their global empire.

And as if the investigation into Horner wasn’t enough to bring F1 into disrepute, FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem is facing allegations of ‘interfering with a steward’s decision’ as first reported by BBC Sport following the Bahrain Grand Prix.

The decision in question, was the 10-second penalty handed to Fernando Alonso for incorrectly serving an earlier five-second penalty during a pit-stop with the latter punishment having cost Aston Martin a podium finish.

Allegations brought forward by a whistleblower to the BBC claim that Ben Sulayem had contacted the FIA Middle East and North Africa president of sport and suggested the steward’s decision for the penalty should be overturned – which later it was.

Ben Sulayem, who’s currently in the third year of his four-year presidency term, is no stranger to controversy. At a time where the public perception of the FIA was already quite dire, following the events of the infectious wound that was the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2021 the Emirati has, in an unsolicited manner, provoked and interfered in Formula One matters.

Making social media comments about F1’s commercial value, as well as having green-lit the process to search out prospective teams which saw Andretti apply and then be emphatically rejected by Formula One Management on commercial grounds, and then launching an investigation into Wolff and wife Susie over a conflict of interest.

Not since 2009, under the presidency of the late Max Mosley, were there threats of a breakaway of F1 from the FIA. And anytime there has been such threat, it has always been received with a grain of salt. Until recently, Ben Sulayem’s actions have been provoking the thought of Formula One Management splitting from its governing body.

Forever intending to be a harbinger of optimism, the unchecked victories for reigning world champion Max Verstappen in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia did little to galvanise the feeling of disenfranchisement amongst the state of disrepute Formula One is embroiled in.

Max Verstappen wins yet again. (Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images)

The narrative that many have consigned themselves to is that of another Red Bull rampage in 2024 and that sadly discredits and discounts the rest of the field.

But ultimately this state of disrepute the sport finds itself in, looks to have no end in the short-term. If only it were as simple as reaching down and shaking the silliness out of the parties involved and returning to the racing. One’d hope someone with enough power would have done that by now.

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