F1: How Christian Horner and Adrian Newey led Red Bull to F1 glory

After Max Verstappen sealed his second FIA Formula One World Championship Drivers’ title in Japan, Oracle Red Bull Racing wrapped up their fifth Constructors’ Championship title with a big debt of gratitude towards technical mastermind Adrian Newey who developed several iterations of the triumphant car.

Having designed championship-winning F1 cars for Williams and McLaren, Newey moved to Red Bull Racing in 2006 under Team Principal Christian Horner and provided the platform for the four consecutive titles that both German Sebastian Vettel and the team won in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Horner and Newey combined for many Grand Prix victories in the years between 2014 and 2020, then Newey’s RB16B design propelled Dutchman Verstappen to his first Drivers’ title in 2021, and the RB18 car became the dominant force behind the team’s two 2022 titles.

Oracle Red Bull Racing’s team principal and chief technical officer talk about everything from titles and triumphs to learning from losing, how their partnership began and why Christian says Adrian “lives in the Matrix”. Here’s all you need to know:

Christian, you’ve described Adrian’s move to Red Bull as a litmus moment. What do you mean by that?

CH: “I think the general consensus was that Red Bull was there to have a good time with parties, the energy station and a whole vibe. I think what was missing was a clear technical direction. I’d always been a fan of Adrian and his cars going way back to Leyton House times in the late 1980s, and Adrian was the very best that’s ever been in Formula One. So it was a question of how we could entice Adrian to join the Red Bull team?”

Adrian, was there any skepticism about joining a team led by, dare I say, an inexperienced team principal?

AN: “Yes, there was a bit of nervousness on my part. I’d been lucky enough to work for two great teams, and I’d been fortunate enough to win several races, championships and so forth, but I just felt it was starting to get a bit stale at McLaren. Like Leyton House, it felt like unfinished business that there was a team to be involved in right from the start. Winning championships seemed a very distant dream. Just trying to win races was something that really intrigued me.”

What were your first impressions of Sebastian Vettel?

CH: “Sebastian was a product of the junior team, so we could see how he was developing in Formula Three or even in Formula BMW before that, and then he went off to be a test driver at BMW, and Toro Rosso provided that opportunity to give some of these Red Bull juniors a chance to step up. As soon as Sebastian got that opportunity, it was clear that he was an outstanding talent. Sebastian worked incredibly hard and was incredibly dedicated. He left no stone unturned. He was often the last guy in the engineering office at the end of a Friday or Saturday.”

Sebastian Vettel (C) of Germany and Red Bull Racing celebrates in the pitlane with Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner (L), Red Bull Racing Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey (R) and the rest of his team mates after finishing third to secure his second F1 World Drivers Championship during the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit on October 9, 2011 in Suzuka, Japan. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

AN: “A legend. For somebody who is not English by birth, his understanding of English humor was, on top of his ability to recall and imitate English humor, incredible. He was very methodical in his approach, and he drove himself hard. If he made a mistake, then he would want to understand how it was a mistake, why he made it and what he could do better. He very rarely made the same mistake twice. He spent lots of time on the driving simulator, testing our theories and working out what it was we needed to try to achieve, so that dedication helped us from an engineering side to make the car better.”

How instrumental has Adrian been to the success?

CH: “Hugely. Adrian is the only bloke that can see air. He lives in The Matrix, and he’s been the conductor of the technical orchestra for all these years now, but he’s still very hands-on and at his drawing board. I had to argue with Ron Dennis to wrestle him out of McLaren. We’ve obviously had highs and lows during all these years, but it’s always been fun. We’ve always had great support from the group, from Dietrich [Mateschitz] and from Helmut [Marko], and that’s enabled us to just focus on being the best race team that we can be.”

What did you both learn during that period of Mercedes’s dominance?

AN: “Have a decent engine. We went into the hybrid era, and Renault got it wrong, so that was pretty depressing because you realized that in your foreseeable future if you do a spectacular job, you might snatch the odd win, but you’re never going to win a championship. That was a reset. I think one of the strengths of the team is that we put our heads down and got through that period so that when once we had a good power unit again with a partnership with Honda, we were able to respond.”

CH: “The most important thing was keeping the team together, focusing on the things we could control. We had great loyalty during that period. Honda shared the same passion, we took that risk, and we were then able to really start to get the foundations in place for a championship challenge.”

How did the RB18 evolve into such a dominant car this season?

AN: “Statistically, obviously, RB18 has been our best car. It’s a car I think we can be very proud of in as much as we had a tight championship battle through 2021, and arguably we put too much resource into that, so you’re not putting it into this brand new car with the new regulations we knew were coming. It’s a difficult balancing act. We focused on trying to get the fundamentals right, including front and rear suspension, the layers, and the radiators. We kind of struggled a little bit with the bounce (porpoising) in pre-season testing. We’d already done a little bit of research and knew roughly what we needed to do to improve it, so when we put the race package on in Bahrain, that catapulted us from definitely behind Ferrari to broadly level. After that, it was a matter of developing it and certainly the second half, we had a fully competitive package.”

Where does winning the titles this season rank among your career achievements?

CH: “It was a very tough year. When you look at the statistics, it looks like we totally dominated it but certainly – in the first half of the season – Ferrari had their chances and probably a quicker package. But Max was outstanding throughout the year, particularly in that first half.

How do you think the reduction of aerodynamic testing will impact the 2023 season?

AN: “There’s no testing, is it’s very difficult to put an answer that will cost us so many tenths of a second per lap. And the reduction of internal testing means we can therefore evaluate less, less different components, less different ideas if we’re really smart and always puts on the right things on the model; then it doesn’t make much difference. But that’s not how it works; there are always some parts that you hope will work and don’t and vice versa. So, it’s difficult. It’s a restriction for sure that will affect us.

I think then there’s a regulation, a small regulation change over the winter, which is lifting of the floor edge by 50 millimeters, which of course, sounds tiny, but in reality, it’s quite a significant aerodynamic change. So, like all teams were working to reduce the deficit from that in addition to the normal development that goes on from year to year, I think we’ve obviously had a good year, particularly in the second half of the season. We do have the best car.

But Ferrari won’t be resting, and they will be kind of sorting out where the weak areas that they had a couple of reliability problems, and they made a couple of pitfall mistakes. So, they’ll be right back. And then, of course, Mercedes. They were quite a long way off the pace and evolving. It’s the point that we the one of the last race for one, so we know they will be right there. So, it’s going to be a tough year for sure.”

In the Early Days

Rewind to 2005, and Christian Horner was a first-time Formula One team principal at a new team called Red Bull Racing, competing in the world championship for the first time. Horner was F1-green and the team was unproven, but he knew what he needed. Or more specifically, who he needed: Adrian Newey.
“What was missing was a clear technical direction,” Horner says.
“Adrian was the very best that’s ever been in Formula One, so it was a question of how could we entice, how could we attract Adrian to join the Red Bull team?”
(L-R) Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner talks to Red Bull Racing Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey during day three of winter testing at the Ricardo Tormo Circuit on February 3, 2011 in Valencia, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
By 2005, Newey had a deserved reputation as F1’s foremost engineering brain, his early days at Leyton House in 1990 leading to title-winning technical director roles at Williams and then McLaren. So Horner put his best foot forward, quite literally one after the other. In that 2005 season, Horner would invariably pop up just as Newey was showing up for work at tracks around the world, as Newey remembers.
“Christian made a habit through the 2005 season that I would be walking into the paddock, I think Silverstone has the clearest memory, he always happened to be walking,” says Newey with a laugh.
“There was another chance interchange and we started to talk a bit more. And then this gentleman in a black leather jacket suddenly popped out from behind a truck and said, ‘I’m Helmut Marko, here is my card. We will ring.'”
Christian Horner and Adrian Newey at the Bahrain Grand Prix, 2010.
The way things were: Horner and Newey show up for work in the early days. © Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool
As history shows, Dr Marko did ring, Newey did join Horner at Red Bull Racing and from those first fledgling steps, the journey from new boys to world champions – and the road back again after eight years – has been the team’s F1 story.
It’s a story that, in 2022, culminated in the team’s first double world title success since 2013, with Max Verstappen annexing his second straight drivers’ world championship, and Sergio Pérez playing a crucial part in the team winning the constructors’ championship for a fifth time.
In a revealing sit-down interview with British sports journalist and TV presenter Laura Winter, Oracle Red Bull Racing’s two most senior figures reflected on the origins of their professional relationship, how working together for a common goal formed a bond and how successes – plus the lean times in between – have shaped the team into a modern-day F1 powerhouse.
Central to that story is 13-time Grand Prix winner David Coulthard, who Newey knew well from the time ‘DC’ spent at Williams and McLaren, and who was Horner’s lead driver for that first F1 season in 2005. Coulthard convinced Newey that, behind Red Bull’s reputation as a ‘party team’, a serious, well-funded, ambitious and hungry group of racers desperate for success lay within.
David Coulthard behind the wheel for Red Bull Racing in 2008.
Once Coulthard vouched for Red Bull’s ambition, Newey was in © Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool
“David’s a good friend, somebody whose judgment I very much trusted, and David gave it a big thumbs-up,” Newey remembers.
“[Red Bull Racing] was always having big discos – was this a team that would be taken seriously? But if you went beneath that veneer, then to me it looked like, yes, it had all the building blocks.”
Those blocks started to build something big when Sebastian Vettel replaced the retiring Coulthard for the 2009 season, having already won a Grand Prix for Red Bull’s sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso (now Scuderia AlphaTauri) at Monza in 2008. Vettel won in his third race for the team – Red Bull’s first F1 victory – in China that year, and would go on to rewrite the F1 record books over the next five seasons, winning four world titles, 38 Grands Prix and establishing Red Bull Racing as the sport’s benchmark, not even a decade into its existence.
Reflecting on Vettel’s career, which finished on 299 races after the German retired from the sport at the 2022 season finale in Abu Dhabi last month, Horner says a combination of skill and unsurpassed work ethic mark him as one of F1’s greats.
Sebastian Vettel and Christian Horner, Chinese Grand Prix 2009
Off the mark: Vettel’s win in China 2009 was Red Bull Racing’s first. © Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool
“It was obvious that he was an outstanding talent. Toro Rosso, as it was at the time, provided that opportunity to give some of these Red Bull juniors a chance to step up. As soon as Sebastian got that opportunity, it was clear that he was an outstanding talent,” Horner says.
“Sebastian worked incredibly hard. He was incredibly dedicated. He left no stone unturned. He was often the last guy in the engineering office at the end of a Friday or Saturday.”
It was a commitment that Newey feels inspired the team to raise the bar.
“He was very methodical in his approach, he drove himself hard,” Newey says.
“If he made a mistake, then he would want to understand how it was a mistake, what he could do better. He very rarely made the same mistake twice.
“That dedication – that played through into the team as well. The team were often prepared to put in that extra mile, because they saw his work and commitment that he was prepared to put in.”

Adrian was the very best that’s ever been in Formula One, so it was a question of how could we entice, how could we attract Adrian to join the Red Bull team

Vettel’s achievements at Red Bull remain unsurpassed, but at Verstappen’s recent rate of progress, perhaps not for much longer.
The Dutchman wasted no time making his mark at Red Bull Racing after 23 races with Toro Rosso, winning on his debut for the team in Spain in 2016. Verstappen then backed up his thrilling last-gasp 2021 title win with a championship defense for the ages in 2022, winning 15 Grands Prix and scoring 454 points, both F1 single-season records.
Adrian Newey, Christian Horner and Max Verstappen, Hungarian Grand Prix 2022
Verstappen – along with Newey and Horner – had 15 reasons to smile in 2022
Both Horner and Newey have seen every aspect of both Vettel and Verstappen’s F1 time at Red Bull from the inside, and while both world champions have achieved their successes in contrasting ways, Horner points to one common thread.
“I think they’re such different people,” Horner emphasizes.
“I mean, Sebastian was very Germanic in his work ethic. He worked very, very hard. Max – just a very natural, raw ability that has a hunger and determination like I’ve certainly never seen before. So, very different in so many ways, but very similar in their determination, in their desire to want to win, to want to be the best.
“Max, whatever he goes on to achieve in his career, has done so much in such a short space of time. At the age of just 25, it’s quite frightening to think what actually lies ahead of him.”
Drivers – and world champions – come and go; such is the cyclical nature of Formula One. But after 17 seasons together, both Horner and Newey agree that they’ve learned as much in the trying years as the triumphant campaigns, and that for all of the gaudy budgets, state-of-the-art facilities and terabytes of data prevalent in F1, the human element still matters most.
“I think one of the strengths of the team is that we put our heads down and got through that period,” Newey says of 2014-18, a time when Red Bull managed to only occasionally capture wins as Mercedes dominated both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
“Once we had a good power unit again with a partnership with Honda, then we were able to respond.”
Horner nods his head in agreement.
“During that period, it was tough because we’d come off the back of four dominant championships and suddenly this barren period – another team was just light years ahead of everybody,” Horner says.
“It’s very easy for an organization that’s got used to winning for people’s heads to drop and lose their motivation. The most important thing was keeping the team together, focusing on the things that we could control, that we could influence. We had great loyalty, great continuity during that period. Bit by bit, we were able to snatch wins here and there in every season bar one, and it was always a question of, we’ve just got to make sure we get the right power unit as part of that package.”
Adrian Newey at Red Bull Racing headquarters in Milton Keynes, 2020
Newey’s approach may be old-school, but the results proves it works © Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool
The 2022 season is already in the rear-view mirror, and Newey’s sights are set – like every engineer – on what comes next, and interpreting Formula One’s rulebook in such a way to keep the team at the top. “Ferrari won’t be resting,” he says.
But while the future is unknown, what’s clearer for both Horner and Newey is why their alliance – edging towards two decades – has worked in the past, and will continue along those lines in the seasons to come.
“I think it’s one that’s based on trust, that’s based on friendship, mutual respect for what we both do,” Horner says on why the relationship with Newey has endured, a theme Newey echoes.
“Trust that we can go on, get on and do our business in our respective jobs and completely trust the other one is doing his,” he says, succinctly.
“A sort of informal way of working, and trust and friendship, is the core of the way it works so well.”
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