Christian Horner is sitting in the Asylum Room at a London members’ club in Marylebone. The reason for the room’s name is unclear but the memories of the madness that enveloped Formula One in the final race of last season in Abu Dhabi, when Max Verstappen overtook Lewis Hamilton on a dramatic and controversial final lap, still linger.

In fact, they are being revived. With the new season almost upon us, Red Bull team principal Horner is at the centre of a new round of recriminations, accusations, disputes and conflagrations. 

Hamilton fans were outraged by footage from the new series of the Netflix hit show, Drive to Survive, of Horner watching a Hamilton podium interview in Abu Dhabi in 2020. ‘I wish he’d shut the f*** up,’ Horner mutters.

Christian Horner has opened up on his bid to get under the skin of Mercedes this season

Max Verstappen will look to defend his title, having claimed his first in controversial fashion

Max Verstappen will look to defend his title, having claimed his first in controversial fashion

Then there is the row over the legality of the design of the new Mercedes and what Horner said to respected German motorsport journalist Michael Schmidt at a test in Bahrain last week. 

Schmidt quoted Horner as saying that the Mercedes design went ‘too far’ and was against ‘the spirit of the regulations’. Red Bull denied any ‘official’ comment had been made.

In case you have forgotten, Hamilton was leading the race last December comfortably for Mercedes but a late crash meant the field bunched up behind the safety car. F1 race director Michael Masi paved the way for a one-lap shoot-out and Verstappen, who had been brought in for fresh tyres by Red Bull, won it.

The victory gave Verstappen his first F1 drivers’ title and many applauded his daring and his team’s opportunism. Many did not. Mercedes had taken a barrister with them to the race and protested the result. Formula One has not been a stranger to title-deciding dramas over the years and it appeared Mercedes and their team principal, Toto Wolff, were expecting trouble.

The result was allowed to stand but the outcry was loud and impassioned. Formula One was accused of making the rules up as it went along, there were calls for Verstappen to be stripped of the title, some said F1 was so in thrall to Netflix and its need for drama that it had put entertainment before the integrity of sport. It was suggested Hamilton might retire in protest. Masi was fired. 

Verstappen celebrated long into the Abu Dhabi night despite Mercedes appealing the result

Verstappen celebrated long into the Abu Dhabi night despite Mercedes appealing the result

On the very last lap of the two-way shootout, Verstappen was able to overtake his fierce rival

On the very last lap of the two-way shootout, Verstappen was able to overtake his fierce rival

And so Horner, fresh from signing Verstappen to a five-year contract extension that will keep him at Red Bull until he is 30, is caught between looking forward to the new season, which begins in Bahrain this week, and dismissing the suggestions that Red Bull’s victory in Abu Dhabi, and in the drivers’ title race, was tainted.

If the narrative of the new season will be couched as a revenge drama, Hamilton’s attempt to get his own back on Verstappen, it is already clear from the furore about Horner’s Drive to Survive comments and the row about the legality of the new Mercedes that the best supporting enmity will be the rivalry between Horner and Wolff.

Horner, 48, who grew up around motor racing and attempted a career as a driver before recognising his limitations and moving into management, is not afraid of the limelight. He has grown more and more used to it, especially since he married the former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell in 2015. 

He is a clever, confident man and uses his platform well. He uses it to promote his team and to play mind-games with his opponents, especially Wolff, who has a home in Monte Carlo.

He oversaw a stellar period of success at Red Bull between 2010 and 2013 when Sebastian Vettel won the drivers’ title four times in succession but there then followed seven years of increasing Mercedes dominance, with Hamilton winning six titles and Nico Rosberg adding another. Building Red Bull back up to dethrone Mercedes took a Herculean effort. 

Horner has looked to dismiss suggestions that the title triumph was tainted due to the fallout

Horner has looked to dismiss suggestions that the title triumph was tainted due to the fallout

The 48-year-old grew up around motor racing and is not afraid of the spotlight on his role

The 48-year-old grew up around motor racing and is not afraid of the spotlight on his role

When Drive to Survive released the first episode of its look back at the 2021 season last week and called it ‘Clash of the Titans’, that was not a reference to Verstappen and Hamilton. It was a reference to Horner and Wolff. The relationship between the two men is strained.

‘We are very different,’ says Horner. ‘If I’m not at the racetrack, I’m in the factory. I’m not living as a tax exile in Monaco, running a team remotely. I am hands-on. My diary is full from the moment I arrive to the moment I leave, dealing with issues within the team. I have very much an open-door policy.

‘I grew up in the sport. I was a race driver that turned my hand to running a team. I’m a racer at heart.

‘Toto has come from a very different background. He has a financial background and is very driven by what the balance sheet says. Results dictate that performance. Does he share the same passion as a racer? I have no idea. Will he be here in 10 years’ time or will he have cashed in and be on his super yacht? I have no idea. 

He has revealed Mercedes chief Toto Wolff 'bites quite easily' and says it is fun to wind him up

He has revealed Mercedes chief Toto Wolff ‘bites quite easily’ and says it is fun to wind him up

‘My relationship with Toto is… you know, it’s professional. He’s not the kind of guy I’m going to go and have dinner with or spend private time with, but I have a respect for what he’s done and what he’s achieved. Of course, as far as I’m concerned, 2021 is done and dusted. It’s now all about 2022. Will he be the main opponent this year? I have no idea.

‘Do I like him? I have no personal issue with Toto. He’s the kind of guy that bites quite easy, so it’s always fun to wind him up a bit. But he’s not a bad guy, that’s for sure.

‘I felt what was going on behind the scenes over the Christmas period was a bit underhand. The pressure that was put on the FIA, the positioning, the pressure that was put on the race director, to try to discredit what we had achieved.

‘The reality was Michael Masi didn’t break their own rules. Mercedes had all the same strategic options available that we did, they made a mistake strategically not pitting Lewis at the virtual safety car but then expecting him to be able to defend on 44-lap-old tyres. He was always going to be massively exposed by the team electing to leave him out despite the fact he was questioning that call.

Race director Michael Masi was sacked as a result of the controversy from last year's finale

Race director Michael Masi was sacked as a result of the controversy from last year’s finale

‘The smokescreen was placed on the race director rather than the mistake Mercedes made strategically.

‘At the point the decision was made to pit, it was entirely probable that all the lapped cars would be allowed to unlap and that the race would get going again because, looking at the size of the accident, it wasn’t a big accident.

‘The driver was fine, it was near an escape road to recover the car, you just knew there was going to be this desire to get the race going again and arguably it could have got going with two laps to go rather than a single lap. Mercedes hung him out to dry a little bit by expecting him to be able to defend on 44-lap-old tyres.

‘In the aftermath of that, there was a concerted campaign by our rivals to discredit our achievement, even to the point of the FIA prize-giving, and it is a tactic that has been employed by Mercedes in other championships as well. As for the idea that the result was influenced by the need for entertainment over sport, I don’t agree with that, either.

Horner says Mercedes made a mistake by not pitting Hamilton during the virtual safety car

Horner says Mercedes made a mistake by not pitting Hamilton during the virtual safety car

‘I don’t think the Drive to Survive director was sitting in race control saying, ‘We need this to finish now’. It has always been clear that it was never good to finish a race under a safety car and that every effort would be made to ensure that didn’t happen because it is the biggest anti-climax that sporting viewers can have.

‘For us, it was always clear there was an extreme probability that the race would get restarted. That did not have anything to do with any narrative from a TV show. It was the responsibility of the race director to safely get that race restarted, which he did.’

Horner sees the battle between Red Bull and Mercedes as a clash between philosophies and ideologies as well as a struggle between racers.

For him, it is new versus old, mavericks against the machine, blue-sky thinkers against the establishment, rock music over classical.

The title showdown between Red Bull and Mercedes is viewed as a clash between philosophies

The title showdown between Red Bull and Mercedes is viewed as a clash between philosophies

That difference, he says, lies at the heart of the bitter fight between the two teams.

That resentment, he thinks, will be heightened by Red Bull’s plans to create their own engine in time for the 2025 season with the Red Bull Powertrains project. They had already done a deal to take over Honda’s power unit project after their former engine partners pulled out of F1 at the end of last season.

‘The fundamental differences,’ says Horner, ‘are that Mercedes is a team that has evolved over the years and grown to such a scale that it is a very well-oiled machine across all of its functions on-track, off-track, politically and media-wise, whereas we have retained the essence of a race team.

‘When you turn up at our factory in Milton Keynes, your sole purpose is working for the race team to improve the car and achieve the best results we can. You have to be prepared to move quickly and you’ve got to be able to react quickly, not be afraid to speak up, not be afraid to speak your mind.

Horner has looked to plan for the future by signing superstar Verstappen to a long-term deal

Horner has looked to plan for the future by signing superstar Verstappen to a long-term deal

‘We are a bit more of a maverick than any other team and that is why Mercedes have not been able to control us. Either through engine supply or drivers, Mercedes have done that with pretty much every other team over past years. There has been an element of influence. There isn’t that influence with Red Bull and that makes us a very dangerous competitor.

‘That inability to control us is at the heart of the tension between us. They are a very controlling group. That is Toto’s mantra. Suddenly, we are playing in their back yard with the engine too. How can an energy drinks company build a chassis that takes on and beats Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault, McLaren? It sits very uncomfortably.

‘Now that we are taking on the power unit and attracting some of the best talent in the business, that is even worse. How can Red Bull produce a competitive engine? That’s our target.’

The signing of Verstappen on a long-term deal, said to be worth £40million a year, represents the other significant strand of Red Bull’s planning for the future. Hamilton is 37 and his contract runs out in 2023. 

Verstappen's lucrative new contract with the constructor is said to be worth £40million a year

Verstappen’s lucrative new contract with the constructor is said to be worth £40million a year

‘We have huge confidence in Max,’ says Horner. ‘Otherwise, we would never have committed to that time scale. To go to 2028 is almost unheard of in this sport, to commit to a driver for that period of time. He is a massive asset to us. He strongly believes in the team and it is down to us to provide him with the tools to get the job done.

‘At some point, Lewis will slow down or he’ll stop and, of course, he is going to have a massive challenge with a very competitive young team-mate and hungry team-mate this year who is going to be one of the best drivers on the grid. George Russell is a phenomenal talent.

‘In Max, at 24, we have looked to lock down what we believe will be the purple patch of his career.

‘Having won this first world championship, it relieves an awful lot of pressure. That is in the bank now. It is on his CV. He will continue to grow now he has got that first one out of the way. We saw that with Sebastian Vettel. 

Horner has revealed Hamilton was 'very keen' to drive for Red Bull between 2010 and 2013

Horner has revealed Hamilton was ‘very keen’ to drive for Red Bull between 2010 and 2013

‘Lewis and I have had a couple of conversations over the years. From 2010 to 2013, he was very keen to come and drive for Red Bull. We had Sebastian at that time and to have had two alpha drivers wouldn’t have made sense.

‘Niki Lauda was at Mercedes and was very keen to take Lewis and I remember encouraging him to take him. We were fighting McLaren and in 2012, they had the fastest car and we felt that Lewis in a McLaren would be more of a threat than in a Mercedes.

‘I encouraged Niki to spend the money as Lewis was wavering a little bit. It would be fair to say that backfired on me.’

Now, Horner is under no illusions that his team will have to once again scrap with Mercedes

Now, Horner is under no illusions that his team will have to once again scrap with Mercedes

Now, Horner knows his team will have to cope with a Mercedes outfit determined to create the platform for Hamilton to win his eighth drivers’ title, which would take him beyond Michael Schumacher.

‘The sense of achievement of beating this mighty machine of Mercedes with Lewis as a part of it, was huge.

‘The whole organisation gets used to winning and it’s like a drug. It’s addictive. Then it’s the fear of failure. It ends up driving you because you want to experience that feeling again and again.’