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Red Bull's mysterious investigation into Horner overshadowing start of F1 season

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Testing for the upcoming Formula 1 season began this week and there was Christian Horner, the head of Red Bull Racing, still leading his team as it begins its bid for a third consecutive championship.

Horner was also front and center a week ago at Red Bull's launch of its 2024 car — a virtual highlight reel of the success Horner has built since he became team principal in 2005. Make no mistake, the longest-tenured team leader in the F1 paddock knows how to win: Red Bull has won six constructors' championships and seven drivers' championships under Horner.

But as he continues with "business as normal" — Horner's own words at the launch last week — nobody else can figure out how he has remained on the job during an internal investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct that parent company Red Bull announced on Feb. 5.

More than two weeks later, the motorsports community is engrossed in daily rumors and speculation about what Horner has been accused of doing by a team employee. There has been silence out of Austria since the investigation was announced and a defiant Horner has stated he will be part of the team when the F1 season begins next weekend in Bahrain.

For all the courting of American fans and deals with U.S. corporations done by F1 and owner Liberty Media, the handling of this Horner mess is utterly bizarre. F1 and governing body FIA have both issued statements urging a quick resolution to the investigation — statements that came only after the gossip surrounding Horner had reached tabloid levels — but neither entity is looking into the situation itself.

Over in the United States, minor transgressions in the NFL or NBA can trigger full-scale investigations and league-issued punishments. In NASCAR, the stock car series' sanctioning body suspended driver Noah Gragson for "liking" an insensitive meme on Instagram.

But nothing seems to have changed at all for Horner since Red Bull said it was looking into things. Future engine supplier Ford openly asked for a resolution. Visa, which in January was announced as title sponsor for Red Bull’s second team, and main Red Bull sponsor Oracle have both declined comment on the Horner investigation.

In the meantime, details have trickled out. Because much of it has come from Dutch media reports, both three-time reigning world champion Max Verstappen and his father, Jos, have been suggested as the leakers.

What was initially described internally as an investigation into Horner's "aggressive management style" has now shifted to reports of sexual misconduct. There were allegedly nearly 100 pieces of evidence introduced during a deposition of Horner, who allegedly offered his accuser a six-figure settlement.

F1 desperately wants the gossip to stop, especially since the season starts next week and "Drive to Survive" will release its latest instalment Friday on Netflix. Horner is in all the trailers.

What's very true is that the knives are out for Horner throughout F1, and his fate is far more complicated than whatever is determined in Red Bull's investigation.

Red Bull was founded by Dietrich Mateschitz and Chaleo Yoovidhya, a Thai pharmacist, and Horner was close to both. But Mateschitz died last year and although his son, Mark, runs the company, the family holds only 49% ownership of Red Bull.

The remaining 51% is owned by Yoovidhya and Horner's future with Red Bull could come down to a standoff between the two families. If the Thai side of the business decides that Horner has done nothing to warrant losing his job, it might not much matter what Mark Mateschitz finds in this internal investigation.

It's an ugly distraction that nobody wants ahead of the season opener, with some teams now wondering how the daily drama of the Horner situation may hurt them in the pursuit of American sponsors.

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff called for transparency from the investigation as the new season nears.

"Formula 1 and what the teams do, we stand for for inclusion, equality, fairness, diversity, and it's not only about talking about it, but living it day in, day out," Wolff, a chief Horner rival, said Wednesday on the first day of testing.

"I think what Red Bull has started as an independent investigation, if this is done in the right way, with transparency and with that rigor, I think that's something that we need to look at. What the outcomes are and what it means for Formula 1, and what we can learn from that."

James Vowles, the team principal at Williams, noted in an interview with Bloomberg how damaging the investigation can be to F1's growing reputation and focus on diversity and inclusion.

"The sport itself, wind back 20 years ago, (it was) male-dominated without question. If you had to ask me what makes up a team, it would be white, more than likely, male, more than likely, 40 years old … something in that ballpark," Vowles said. "That's changing, and it's only a positive. These allegations are allegations. I'm afraid I don't have any understanding of what is behind them and the significance of what has happened.

"But again, we all have to look each other in the mirror and make sure we are posing the right questions internally and acting in a way that we can only be proud of, not today, but in the next 10 years."

For now, the Horner investigation — not Lewis Hamilton's stunning decision to move to Ferrari in 2025 or the rejection of Michael Andretti by F1 to join the series or Haas' offseason firing of team principal and "DTS" star Guenther Steiner — is the only topic of discussion with a season looming.

Verstappen only wants to drive and win races — he won 19 of 22 last season — and so if all the attention is on his boss, then he’s left alone to focus on his 2024 car and a fourth consecutive title.

Horner and everyone else whispers and waits to see what happens next.

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