Formula 1’s Misogyny is a Car Crash You Can’t Look Away From

On International Women’s Day this year, the RB Formula 1 Team celebrated by listing their female employee’s names on the side of the chassis. On the same day, Red Bull Racing, RB’s sister team, suspended a female employee who accused their Team Principal, Chrisitan Horner,  of “inappropriate and controlling behaviour.” The cruel irony was not lost on fans. RB’s act, while perhaps well-intentioned, revealed the true nature of Formula 1’s performative approach towards gender inclusivity: the bare minimum. 

Formula 1’s off-season, dubbed “silly season,” is no stranger to rumours. Journalists and fans run wild with theories about car designs, future driver swaps and team lineups. Such speculation is typically harmless, entertaining fans during the off-season. When the allegations against Horner became public, though, people quickly dismissed them as another part of “silly season” rather than a serious claim of abuse of power. 

A Brief Timeline of the Allegations 

After the initial accusation went public, Red Bull’s parent company, Red Bull GmbH, launched an investigation into the claims. Horner, who has been at the helm of Red Bull’s three consecutive Constructor and Driver’s Championships, continued to participate in scheduled press. Walking hand-in-hand with his wife, Geri Halliwell, at pre-season testing, Horner’s message was clear: he would not let the accusations veer momentum away from Red Bull’s dominance, calling them a “distraction.” On February 28, Red Bull announced that the accusations against Horner were dismissed. However, the dismissal of allegations does not equate to being “absolved of wrongdoing.” 

The madness continued after a slew of WhatsApp messages between Horner and the female employee were sent to senior F1 officials and released to the public by an anonymous source. And while the authenticity of the messages has yet to be verified, the leaked messages —some breaching the bounds of appropriateness— were downplayed as potential evidence for workplace misconduct. The leaked messages were turned into memes and circulated social media platforms, all for the entertainment of fans. 

Then, on March 7, 2024, it was reported that the female employee, who had accused Horner of misconduct, was suspended from Red Bull. The employee appealed against the Red Bull GmbH’s decision and has reportedly informed the FIA, Formula 1’s governing body, of potential breach of their Anti-Harassment and Non-Discrimination Policy. 

Formula 1’s Systemic Issue

Even before the investigation’s outcome was decided, many fans, especially female ones, were disappointed by the overall response and lack of transparency. They were quick to point out the FIA’s lack of urgency and double standard. In December 2023, the FIA swiftly launched an investigation over an unsubstantiated claim of a conflict of interest between Susie Wolff, managing director of F1 Academy, and her husband and Mercedes Team Principal, Toto Wolff. On March 20th, Susie Wolff filed a criminal complaint against the FIA for their lack of accountability stating, “I feel more than ever it is important to stand up, call out improper behaviour and make sure people are held to account.”

F1 Academy Managing Director Susie Wolff at Formula 1 Testing in Silverstone in 2012. “SUSIEWOLFF-17.10.12_0528” by Lewis James Houghton is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED.

Drivers and their acquaintances have shared similar sentiments. Jos Verstappen, father of three-time World Champion Max Verstappen, warned that Horner would “tear the team apart” and Horner was “playing the victim.” It is hard to believe that Jos Verstappen’s position is fueled by his concern for workplace safety, but rather concern for Red Bull’s performance. Jos Verstappen was charged with assaulting his then-wife in 2008 and arrested for attempting to run over his ex-girlfriend with a car. And for F1 officials, such as F1 President, Mohamed Ben Sulayem, it seems that their calls for transparency are not rooted in genuine concern for women in motorsport, but for the sake of preserving Formula 1’s reputation: “We just need to enjoy the beginning of the season. Look at the competition. Why do we overshadow it with negativity?” 


FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem (pictured on the left) speaking at the International Transport Forum’s summit on “Transport – a catalyst for inclusive societies” in May 2022. “Mohammed Ben Sulayem on motoring’s contribution to inclusiveness” by the International Transport Forum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED.


And for the increasing number of female motorsport fans, what does this mean for their safety at races? The 2022 Austrian Grand Prix was “a nightmare for female fans.” Almost as soon as the event began, multiple accounts of female fans being verbally and physically harassed flooded social media, including reports of racist, sexist, and homophobic abuse. Three-time World Champion, Max Verstappen said, “Don’t get too drunk, just watch the race and enjoy.” But it is exactly this mentality that demonstrates Formula 1’s fundamental flaw. Female fans cannot just “enjoy” races when their safety is at risk. Employees cannot just “go to work” when Formula 1 has done little to ensure a safe environment. 

The number of women in motorsport and female viewers of F1 have increased significantly over the years. But as motorsport journalist Elizabeth Blackstock explains, “Women are becoming more prominent in paddocks around the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re welcomed as equal.” So while F1 officials and drivers bask in their willful ignorance, they leave female employees wondering if their safety may be sacrificed for preserving profits and the sport’s reputation. Will their story also be warped into some insidious power play between trophy-hungry teams?

Ultimately, the issue goes beyond Horner. It is the culture of Formula 1 that does not take such abuse of power allegations seriously and priorities winning above all else. It is the way that the allegations are discussed in the context of how it may impact Red Bull’s dominance. It is the fact that many drivers, the faces of Formula 1, have called the allegations “noise.” Whether or not the allegations are true, Formula 1 has done little to convince anyone that their efforts to be more inclusive are more than just lip service.

Horner said, “I think it’s time to draw a line under it. And to focus on what is going on the track.” The question Formula 1 and its fans should be asking themselves is where do we draw the line? What does it take for legitimate change to occur in a sport that is so deeply embedded with misogyny its former chief saying, “women should be dressed in white, like all the other domestic appliances.” Horner’s case and the reaction by F1 fans and officials, have made it more obvious than ever that Formula 1 has a systemic issue and is yet to be truly safe for women and other marginalised groups. 

Featured Image: Christian Horner takes part of the Red Bull Soapbox Race in London, 2013. “Red Bull Soapbox 18” by David Parry/PA is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED.

Edited by Clare Rowbotham