F1 can’t — and shouldn’t — just ‘move on’ from under its cloud of controversy


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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Christian Horner believes it is time to “move on” and put the focus back on Formula One’s on-track action, saying that is “where the spotlight should be.”

But amid the continued aftermath of the allegations against the Red Bull Racing team principal over inappropriate behavior and further off-track controversies concerning the FIA, the sport remains under a cloud.

Horner was speaking on Thursday in the FIA press conference ahead of this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, just hours after it emerged that Red Bull Racing had suspended with pay the female complainant who made the allegations.

The grievance made against Horner was dismissed following an investigation conducted by a King’s Counsel (KC), an independent investigator. According to a person briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the complainant’s suspension links to the findings of the investigation.

Asked by The Athletic about the suspension, Horner said he “can’t comment on anything confidential between an employee and a company.”

The “move on” comment came during a 30-minute press conference that was dominated by questions to Horner, who said: “The time now is to look forward and to draw a line under it.” He spoke of it being a “very trying” period for him and his family, against whom he said the “intrusion” had to end. (Horner’s marriage to Geri Halliwell-Horner, a former member of the Spice Girls, has prompted increased media coverage, particularly in the UK.)

Horner recognized that a set of anonymously leaked messages, allegedly sent between him and the complainant, that emerged last week had “garnered an awful lot of coverage.” (Last week, he declined to comment on what he called “anonymous, speculative messages from an unknown source.”)

“It’s all been focused very much in one direction,” Horner said. “What has happened then after that is others have looked to take advantage of that. Unfortunately, Formula One is a competitive business and obviously elements have looked to benefit from it. That’s perhaps the not so pretty side of our industry.”

One recurring question about the case has centered on the lack of transparency and details from Red Bull, something highlighted last week by two of Horner’s rival F1 team bosses, Toto Wolff of Mercedes and Zak Brown of McLaren. “I believe that with the aspiration as a global sport on such critical topics it needs more transparency,” Wolff said. “I wonder what the sport’s position is.”

In announcing the outcome of the investigation, Red Bull GmbH, Red Bull Racing’s parent company, said the report was “confidential” and that it would “not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned.” It means details of the allegations and the grounds upon which the grievance was dismissed remain unknown.

Horner highlighted that confidentiality when asked about the need for transparency, particularly given the subject matter in an era when F1 has been pushing for improved inclusivity, and has enjoyed an influx of new, young female fans.

Horner called it a “complicated issue” before noting that it was an internal matter at Red Bull, and that the process was “confidential between the individuals and the company itself.”

“I’m not at liberty, unfortunately due to those confidentiality, and out of the respect to the company and of course the other party, that we’re all bound by the same restrictions,” Horner said. “So even if I would like to talk about it, I can’t, because of those confidentiality restrictions.”

He said it was “not an FIA issue” and “not a Formula One issue,” but a “company-employee issue, and that would be the same in any major organization.”

The FIA, F1’s regulator, has shown zero sign of getting involved in the matter. While the FIA’s president, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, told the Financial Times in Bahrain last week that this situation was “damaging the sport,” he also said he did not want to “jump the gun” and commence any investigation through the FIA’s compliance or ethics department.

On Thursday, when The Athletic approached the FIA for comment about Red Bull’s decision, a spokesperson said they were surprised to have been asked about what they called “a team employment matter,” and instead suggested contacting F1. A spokesperson for F1 itself declined to comment.

The FIA, meanwhile, has its own issues. Its compliance department is investigating its president, Ben Sulayem, over allegations he interfered in the result of last year’s Saudi Arabian GP, as first reported by BBC Sport. The FIA has said it “received a report detailing potential allegations involving certain members of its governing bodies” and it was “assessing the concerns.”

BBC Sport subsequently reported Ben Sulayem was also being investigated for allegedly wishing to prevent the certification of the Las Vegas circuit. An FIA spokesperson said that “from a sporting and safety perspective, the Las Vegas circuit approval followed FIA protocol in terms of inspection and certification. “If you recall, there was a delay in the track being made available for inspection due to ongoing local organizer construction works.” The same spokesperson also highlighted an interview given by Ben Sulayem to GP Racing magazine last November, where he explained his support for green-lighting the Las Vegas track layout.

All four team principals in Thursday’s press conference — Horner and Krack were joined by Williams’ James Vowles and Bruno Famin of Alpine — were asked about the investigations into the FIA president. Famin said we should focus on what is happening on the track. Krack said from Aston Martin’s point of view, the matter was “clear and closed.” Vowles said he was pleased a process was in place, and “as far as I understand, it’s in review, which is the right thing.”

The investigations mark the latest in a long line of controversies to involve the FIA president. But Horner urged people to not “preempt the facts”.

“There needs to be an investigation,” Horner said. “And I’m sure the relevant parties, and again the process that they have within the statutes of the FIA will be followed.

“All I would urge is don’t prejudge. Wait for the facts. Wait to see what is the reality before coming to a judgment.”

As much as Horner may want the focus to be “on the track and going racing” in F1, the ongoing turmoil reflects badly on the sport. There’s no escaping that. The past three weeks have seen it reach not only the back page of the newspapers, but the front pages, too. People are talking about F1 for the reasons the sport does not want.

“It definitely doesn’t look good to the outside world, from the outside looking in,” said Lewis Hamilton on Wednesday. “It’s a really, really important time for the sport to show and stick to their values, hold ourselves accountable for our actions.” He called it a “really, really pivotal moment” for F1, for the message it sends out to the rest of the world.

“I hope it’s not a year that it continues to go on with this,” Hamilton said. “It highlights some of the issues we also have in the sport, when we are talking about diversity and inclusion that includes gender, for example, and making people feel comfortable in this environment is key. And that’s clearly not the case.”

Horner is right in saying the on-track action is “where the spotlight should be” for F1. But so long as these questions and doubts remain, that spotlight will remain elsewhere.

(Lead photo of Christian Horner and Mohammed Ben Sulayem at the Bahrain Formula One GP: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP))

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