Last Friday, just seven days before making his racing debut in Formula One as the new team boss of Red Bull Racing, the first thing Christian Horner said, as he welcomed me into his modest office - just up the stairs from the entrance of the factory in a non-descript industrial area near Milton Keynes, is;"Sorry about the green carpet on the floor." It's a strange opening gambit, but it's clearly been weighing on his mind - the carpet is an unintended reminder of Them, the ones that were there before him, the ones who used to own the team but fell by the wayside. Horner has been the occupant of that office for six weeks, and he's had a few more pressing tasks than replacing the carpet or the signs outside, newly modest and draped with a tarpaulin. Those six weeks have been spent shaking hands and weighing up the people who are responsible for enacting his decisions, in looking and watching everything at the factory and at the tests to see how it all slots together, in pushing forward with the programme that was set to run right up to thirty minutes after I leave, when he was due to catch a flight to Australia.
Because at the end of those six weeks, when he steps off the plane in Melbourne, there will be millions of people around the world waiting to see what he and his team have achieved.
Horner, the F3000 - now GP2 - Arden team owner, was a surprise announcement as the new sporting director for Red Bull Racing, mainly because it was common knowledge that he was attempting to set up his own team in Formula One. To that end, he tried to buy the ailing Jordan team, but when that fell apart Red Bull came calling.
"It all came about fairly quickly in the end," Horner recalls of the period."Red Bull were fully aware of my aspirations from the beginning of 2004 - obviously we enjoyed a successful relationship in Formula 3000, winning the final championship with one of their junior drivers, Tonio [Liuzzi]. I first spoke to them about my aspirations for Formula One in the summer, at which time Jaguar wasn't an option on the market, and as soon as Jaguar became an option there was really only one realistic buyer - Red Bull.
"So we'd been in discussions throughout the year, and I continued to look at Jordan. Really the discussions [with Jordan] only broke down before Christmas, and I'd obviously stayed in contact with the guys at Red Bull - they were fully aware of what I was up to. Obviously they had issues with the previous management here and wanted a clean and fresh start, and there was an obvious synergy between what I wanted to do, what they were doing, and where we both wanted to go. So it all happened quite quickly over the Christmas break, and here I am."
While it was initially a surprise, the deal made sense: Horner is a sharp racer, has a proven track record in Formula 3000 but doesn't have the hundreds of millions it costs to enter Formula One, while Red Bull has the money but, Helmut Marko aside, not the team management history in motor racing. As Horner says,"for me it was an absolute no-brainer to get involved and become a part of that."
Taking a cue from long time family friend, Prodrive principal and former BAR team boss David Richards, Horner has set up the deal through Arden - he had already handed over a lot of responsibility for the GP2 team to deputy Mick Cook, and the deal allows his to officially hand over the reins while still insuring that the company he has spent years building up will remain financially sound. Arden will also run in Red Bull colours this year - it can't hurt their drivers' career prospects having the team owner also running a Formula One outfit.
But having made the step up, achieving a long held ambition to get into Formula One, what does the future hold for Horner and his new team? It was a huge leap to get into the big game, but what can he do now that he's made it?
"You know," Horner says,"the jump between what is effectively the First Division and the Premiership is astronomical. But there is a clear vision here for the future - Mr. Mateschitz hasn't just come into Formula One to take part, he's here to compete. And that's very evident in the investment that you see here, with the signings that have been announced today - [ex-Renault designer] Mark Smith, as well as Anton Stipanovich in control systems, who joins us from Ferrari. The foundations are being laid for the future."
But none of that made it any easier for Horner on his first day in the factory. Six weeks ago, Tony Purnell and David Pitchforth, who were incredibly popular in the team after ensuring everyone's jobs by facilitating the sale of the Jaguar Racing team to Dieter Mateschitz, owner of Red Bull, were given their marching orders after a number of disputes with the new proprietor. Horner was walking in the front door as the two were slumping out the back, and he then he had to host a staff meeting to explain what had happened.
"Obviously it was difficult for all the staff - they didn't know me, or maybe some of them had heard of me," Horner recalls."Even my own staff hadn't heard until that morning! But I was pleased with the reaction that they all gave me, and I could immediately see that there was a real competitive spirit here and determination, which has obviously been in place throughout the difficult period of uncertainty during the whole sale process.
"Of course it came as quite a shock to the staff, but I received no negativity, and I think through the last six weeks they've begun to understand who I am and what my vision is. As I say, the dedication, commitment and hard work that's gone in from all personnel involved here to have two cars out running at the beginning of February, with a productive test programme that's managed to recoup a couple of days due to hard work - I've been more than happy with what I've seen so far."
It's hard to know how where the team is at the moment, or how much Horner has contributed to the programme so far - he was brought in after the car was designed and as parts were being built, and good racing teams have an inbuilt momentum propelling them along, particularly when they are building a new car. Horner, always one to watch his words when a microphone is on him, is particularly reticent to say anything off-message at the moment, particularly about his benefactors, referring at all times to Mister Mateschitz and Doctor Marko, deferentially.
He is also overwhelmingly positive about everything coming out of the factory - of course, everyone is positive at the start of a new job.
That said, the off-season programme has been surprisingly successful. Most people expected the team to drop off a bit, the inevitable result of change at the top and flapping below, but to their credit the car has looked fast and reliable in testing. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, the Cosworth engine seems to be living up to the illustrious history of the company after a number of years in the doldrums.
"Yeah, the engine's been okay so far - it's proved to be reasonably reliable, and I know that Cosworth are obviously working very hard, and they've got a lot to prove this year - they're in the open market," Horner explains."It's an important relationship, and Cosworth have got an upgrade coming mid-season and they're promising a horsepower increase, which is obviously what we need! Cosworth are obviously as keen to see this project work as we are."
Cosworth are in a more difficult position than their former sister company - after years of Ford ownership they are now in the choppy waters of supply and demand, and they need to prove their worth to a very demanding customer base. Their employees used to effectively have jobs for life - someone always needed their engines to go racing in Formula One - but with the other manufacturers now talking openly of their plans to sell engines, Cosworth has to deliver.
The ties between the two companies are still close - Red Bull Racing's technical director Gunter Steiner was responsible for Cosworth's Formula One engine boss Alex Hitzinger getting his job, for example - but there are no guarantees that the two companies will continue to work together after this year. Cosworth is literally competing for their Formula One future, and it will be interesting to see if they are up to the task.
Questions were also raised about the driver lineup, with David Coulthard in particular drawing fire after a lacklustre 2004 season, but the off-season has seen a new, relaxed Coulthard in and out of the car, with testing times showing he left none of his commitment in his McLaren seat."David this year is the single biggest asset that we have," Horner agrees, relaxing at last into a subject he feels more comfortable with."He brings a wealth of experience from ten years in two top teams during his spells with Williams and McLaren.
"At 33 years of age, I believe he's probably at his peak, still has a lot more to offer and is hugely motivated - I've been enormously impressed with the commitment he's shown to this programme all round. He's an integral part of the team here, and he's in a situation he's not been in previously in his career, where he is the undisputed number one within the team and a very relevant benchmark for the two youngsters that we have.
"At the end of the day, he's won thirteen Grands Prix and been on the podium, I think, over fifty times - that's a wealth of experience and knowledge that he brings to the team, and he's integrated into the team well. I've known him since we both raced in karts, albeit he was a couple of years ahead of me, being a couple of years older! He just seems to be enjoying the slightly more relaxed environment that he's working in, and he's extremely motivated."
Coulthard will be paired, at least initially, with the enigma that is Christian Klien. The Austrian clearly has speed - his junior career was respectable, although he was probably pushed up the ladder too fast - but even after a year in the top flight there are a lot of question marks about his abilities in and out of the car. For the whole year last season, Klien didn't seem to be in the right place. The demands on a modern Formula One driver require more than driving fast, and he seemed often seemed lost when talking to journalists or in public functions, as well as, on occasion, in the car.
Coulthard will be a good yardstick for Klien in more that just driving, and Horner knows it. The demands are vague -"I want him to extract the maximum from the team and the car, as I do with all three drivers, and grab opportunities as they present themselves" - and the clock is ticking.
For just around the corner, waiting and watching, is Vitantonio Liuzzi. Outgoing and gregarious where Klien is reluctant and sullen, Liuzzi has a lot of support behind him, and it's growing. It can't hurt that his team boss from an overwhelming successful Formula 3000 season has made the step up with him, either."I think it's healthy to have competitiveness for the seat, and Tonio, who I obviously know pretty well, is going to be snapping at his heels. Both drivers are signed to long term contracts with the team, and I've always believed in healthy competition."
Liuzzi is going to Melbourne as the team's third driver, but are we going to see him racing this year?"That's a question I can't answer today," Horner wavers, moving back in his seat and weighing his words carefully."That's a situation we will review on an ongoing basis - how Christian performs in the seat, together with how Tonio performs in the third seat. Tonio is undoubtedly a real talent, as he demonstrated within my team [in F3000] last year, but it counts for nothing in Formula One; he's got to demonstrate that ability within the windows of opportunity that he has on a Friday. But he's settled in well during the off-season, and I'm happy with his progress."
Whatever happens in the second seat, Coulthard is secure in the first one."No, no, no!" Horner blurts when I ask whether the Scot could be part of the driver review process, breaking from his careful consideration."David is a fixed and constant factor! David brings such a wealth of experience, knowledge and his speed is not in question here - he's won thirteen Grands Prix and won in Melbourne only the year before last I think, so David's position is very clear."
Horner has been to a few team principals' meetings already ("Very civilised!" he laughs."Nobody yells at anybody as far as I can tell from the two or three meetings I've attended!"), but the real test is just days away - Melbourne, the first race of a long race season. Does he think that the team is ready for the year?"Yeah ... you can never predict what the first few races are going to throw at you, and obviously we've been working to a tight timescale, but I think we've achieved quite a lot in a short span of time.
"We've bolstered our technical staff, we've had a reasonable pre-season test programme, and I think we are as prepared as we can be considering the timescale we've had to operate within, and that's a testament to the work the staff has put in here. Where that puts us in the pecking order I don't know, but we'll find out next weekend."
It could be expected that the team would be okay - they've been on the grid for a number of years, and even if the car wasn't as good as the other teams they could be relied upon to be able to run it and compete.
But what about Horner? For all his racing experience, this is still his debut in Formula One."Well, Formula One is still a form of motorsport at the end of the day, and being successful in motorsport, I believe, is doing the basics well, keeping your feet on the ground, and making sure everyone is working in the same direction.
"The fundamentals remain the same, whether it's Formula One or Formula 3000 - it's just the scale that's different. I will continue to use here the principles that have served me well at Arden. I've always believed in addressing the basics well and moving from there, and I think we've got a reasonable car to work with this year - the design team haven't wavered in their commitment during the whole sale process, and I think they've done an excellent job.
"But it's only the start of a very long year - there are nineteen races, a new tyre format, new rules, new qualifying procedures - and it will be very interesting to see how things pan out."
With such a hectic year ahead of him, and six weeks of non-stop work behind, has he had a chance to enjoy anything about achieving his long held goal of reaching the big game?"My feet haven't really touched the ground during the last six or seven weeks!" he laughs, finally dropping his shoulders and relaxing a little."It's been pretty flat out with long hours, but I thrive on situations like this. I guess on the flight to Melbourne I'll have a chance to think about whether I've enjoyed all of this or not, but my motivation is very clear."
And that motivation is this: compete, prove your worth, fight for points, move forward, and push for more back in the factory. And maybe, if there is some time in an otherwise busy schedule, to arrange for some blue carpet and a new sign out the front - it's time to look forward.
Sidebar - Wherefore art thou, Arden?
Change the topic to Arden, and Christian Horner visibly relaxes - he leans back into his chair, and the answers come fast and efficiently. While he is still finding his place within the Red Bull organisation, Arden is his first love, the company he built with his own hands and knows better than anything.
But what is happening within the team? A change of series, with Formula 3000 relegated to history and GP2 rising from its ashes, presents a lot of challenges, and Horner is no longer there day to day to ensure its smooth running."Arden is run on a day to day basis by the structure that was already in place," he begins."Mick Cook has run the technical side of the team for the last few years, and it's a well established and incredibly strong group of people working within the team there.
"We've also got two extremely strong drivers in the line up this year - [Heikki] Kovalainen and [Nicolas] Lapierre - that's an exciting line up. So a new challenge in a new car and a new formula with GP2, but they seem to have made a reasonable start, and I'm pleased with the progress. Obviously over the last twelve months I've been busy with other opportunities while I pursued Formula One options, and Arden has great strength in depth so I've got no worries about that."
DC: How does it all work?
Christian Horner:"Basically, Mick runs it on a day to day basis and co-ordinates; obviously I still keep an overview, but it's a well established, well run team, and I'm sure that we'll be very competitive again this year."
DC: Two years ago you and I sat down and discussed what should happen to improve Formula 3000 - how much of that has happened with GP2?
Horner:"Some of it, not all of it - GP2 will be a big step forward from what Formula 3000 was. I think there are still a few issues to sort out with the cars, but then again the series is very new. I'll be interested to see how the format of the race weekends work, and the most important part is it has proper promotion behind it - it has a proper commercial infrastructure with Renault and Bridgestone behind it. I'm sure that it will be a success, and hopefully address Formula 3000's shortcomings. It's a new era, and I shall be interested to see it in action in Imola in a few weeks time."
DC: It's a bit more expensive, but I guess it will be worthwhile for the drivers.
Horner:"Yeah, the budgets are ... we were promised a cheaper formula, but somehow it's become quite a bit more expensive!" - Budgets are rumoured to have increased 50% from last year's one million euros -"But then again the product is a lot more advanced - there is a hydraulic paddle shift, carbon brakes, 600 horsepower, and put those three factors together with eleven events and twenty one races - there's only one event at Monaco - it's a lot of racing, but I think that's a positive thing, and the series will received decent coverage. A Saturday and Sunday race, and it'll be interesting to see - in Formula One you have one set of tyres for a race weekend, and in GP2 you have two compulsory stops!"
DC: With a bigger engine, grooved tyres, more technology on the car and so on, does it make GP2 a lot more relevant to Formula One for the drivers?
Horner:"I'll speak to the drivers after this test - Heikki's in the best position to compare, but ultimately yes it does draw closer comparisons - there's two paddles, hand clutch, carbon brakes, a relevant amount of horsepower and downforce so yes, obviously it does move it that bit closer to Formula One."
DC: Is Arden going to be potentially a feeder team for Red Bull?
Horner:"Arden cars will be branded in a very similar manner to the Formula One cars, and obviously it does provide a very good goldfish bowl to take a look at young drivers - we've got two talented young drivers in the car this year, so I shall be watching with two hats."
DC: I'm really interested to see what Heikki can do this year.
Horner:"He's a guy I've been trying to sign since the end of 2002, and I've followed his career with great interest, so I wasn't going to let him slip through the net this time. He's got a good personality, he's got his feet on the ground, is obviously very talented, and hopefully we can provide him with the right environment and the right car."
DC: Lapierre has a pretty reasonable track record too.
Horner:"Yes - we tested I think nineteen drivers last year, from all different formulas in the old car, and did a colossal amount of mileage between mid-September and the beginning of December, and Nicolas was the one who stood out as a rookie. We've always tried to create the right balance within the team - to bring experience and freshness to the formula. We've achieved that balance previously between [Tomas] Enge and Bjorn [Wirdheim], Bjorn and Townsend Bell, and last year with Tonio and Robert [Doornbos]. The two are working very well as teammates, and I'm sure Nicolas will push Heikki very hard once he gets up to speed. I'm really happy with the lineup we have."