- Red Bulletin
At home with the Horners
The charcoal is still warm from last night's barbecue but the spring sun hasn't yet fired enough rays to clear the early mists that grey the fields of Northamptonshire. The loudest sound is the gravel-crackle underfoot on the walk to the front door of Christian Horner's Georgian retreat - one buried so deep in the English countryside it's hard to imagine that a noisy, globetrotting, pleased-with-itself sport called Formula One is the reason we're here.
Christian, of course, is team principal of Red Bull Racing, the upstart F1 team which in seven-and-a-bit intense seasons has progressed from mid-grid mediocrity to 2010-2011 world title doubles for both team and star driver, Sebastian Vettel. The tantalising prize ahead, should they continue the run of success that started at the 2009 Chinese GP (a 1-2 finish for Vettel and teammate Mark Webber), is a pair of title hat-tricks - a feat achieved previously only by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari in the early noughties.
Today, though, is not really a Formula One day. Today is about a couple of hours at home, a later-than-usual breakfast, a chance to walk the dogs and feed the chickens. Not that Formula One can ever be truly absent. For example, guests at the previous evening's barbie included members of the team. And when he whistles in his dogs from the lawns at the back of the converted former rectory, the names of the twin West Highland Whites, Bernie and Flav, provoke further amusement. [For those readers who may not be intimately acquainted with Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone is the sport's long-time impresario; Flavio Briatore a colourful confidante of Ecclestone's and former team boss/driver manager.]
With the hounds eagerly sniffing their master's visitors and making sure they're welcome, not intruders, Christian gives The Red Bulletin a quick tour of his home's lower floor, where a handful of objects, such as a caricature model of him and Vettel (a gift from Seb, thanking the team for twice making him a world champion) remind that while Horner may appear quite the country gent, his day job is the antithesis of pastoral.
"It's important to be able to get away from Formula One and not become obsessive about it," he reflects as we step outside towards the barns where his chickens are kept, passing his cherished, cherry-red vintage Massey Ferguson tractor along the way.
"Formula One is such an intense industry and sport that it can consume your life and if you don't manage to have periods of downtime or switch off, you can't operate at 100 per cent," he says. "You can't do that 100 per cent of the time and that's why it's important to have a bit of release that just takes your mind off things."
We're watching Christian's partner, Beverley, feed the chickens as we chat and it's safe to say that right now he's enjoying just such "a bit of release". He takes delight in pointing out the two cockerels - standing tall amid the clucky brood. And he's swiftly on to an explanation of the 500-year old dovecote, elsewhere in the grounds, that now serves as a wood store.
"They used to collect the doves' feathers to make pillows," he relates.
Vaulting above us are a pair of skyscraping cedars, that are somewhere around 250 years old, that provide shelter, calm and a profound aura of timeless permanence. Here, you sense, despite being a driven (and still young, at 38) man in charge of a title-fighting F1 team, at the epicentre of a furiously restless sport, Christian Horner is at peace, in a little piece of England that remains within, wherever his work may take him. In a heartbeat at the start of this season, that meant Australia, Malaysia, China, Bahrain. By the end of the, year, F1's busiest ever, a further 16 grands prix will have been contested, Horner at them all.
We're on the move, now, the three dogs in harness, taking a stroll down the lane past the nearby churchyard and on to the edge of a lake, built in the 1500s by the monks of a long-departed monastery. Difficult to believe, amid such rural Zen, that the Silverstone race circuit, home of the British Grand Prix, is barely five miles from here (screaming motors within earshot on a still day), while Red Bull Racing HQ, in Milton Keynes, is a 25-minute cross-country blat. "At legal speeds," Horner winks.
Then: "Listen," he says, calling for silence. A woodpecker is making its unmistakable barkrattling sound in the near distance (nature's own pneumatic drill) and Christian urges that we stop and look. Even the dogs heed his command, though they seem unimpressed at the delay. Hugo chooses to take a breather and parks his hind quarters on what appears to be grass. Except: "Hugo, you have a thistle up your bottom." Horner's hound is unperturbed.
"It's so important to have a home life," Horner continues (Hugo now more comfortably standing). "Just being able to come home in the evenings and switch off, deal with trivia and wake up the next day refreshed. It's a source of strength."
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