Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has urged Formula One and its governing body to “set the compass right” amid continued controversy surrounding Christian Horner.

Horner was earlier this week cleared to continue as Red Bull team principal following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

But the 50-year-old faced subsequent scrutiny after a series of leaked WhatsApp messages –  appearing to be exchanged between him and his complainant – were leaked to all the major players in the sport.

FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem told the Financial Times on Friday that the turmoil is “damaging the sport on a human level”. F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali has not commented on the matter.

Earlier this week, Wolff called for greater transparency from Red Bull Racing’s parent company, Red Bull GmbH, who conducted the investigation.

The Austrian corporation said it was confident the inquiry into Horner had been “fair, rigorous and impartial” and added that the report – understood to stretch to 150 pages – is “confidential”. Horner has always denied the claims.

“Let’s see where it goes in the next days,” said Wolff on Saturday night. “I would very much hope that the governing body, the sanctioning body and the commercial rights’ holder sets the compass right.

“But the moment I start to continue to question how this has been handled, I am probably not doing any good to the whole issue, because then it could be seen as this just being about a power fight within F1.

“That’s why I think it’s not in the team’s hands. It’s a much bigger topic than that and I don’t want to diminish the whole situation by making it seem like the Mercedes guy is talking about the Red Bull guys.”

Wolff was speaking after a disappointing opening race of the season for his Mercedes team at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

George Russell started third and finished fifth – 47 seconds behind winner Max Verstappen – with Lewis Hamilton taking the chequered flag in seventh, 50 sec adrift.

Wolff continued: “Max is in a different league, a different galaxy. We just have to acknowledge his performance levels.

“But I believe that the group of Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes were probably in a similar ballpark. We just need to look at ourselves, get on top of our problems and if we are able to manage our race weekend better, we will be racing those guys.”

Christian Horner said he is “absolutely confident” he will ride out the storm of his life and remain as Red Bull team principal for the rest of the season.

The build-up to the first round of the Formula One campaign here in Bahrain has been overshadowed by allegations whirling around Horner.

But the 50-year-old, who was joined by his wife Geri in a defiant show of unity ahead of Saturday’s 57-lap race, can take temporary relief from seeing Max Verstappen lead a Red Bull one-two, with Sergio Perez second.

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz crossed the line in third, one place ahead of team-mate Charles Leclerc, with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton a disappointing fifth and seventh respectively for Mercedes.

Asked if he is confident he will stay on as Red Bull team principal for the rest of the season, Horner replied: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

During an extraordinary week in the Gulf kingdom, Horner was exonerated by Red Bull Racing parent’s company, Red Bull GmbH, on Wednesday following an internal probe into allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” made by a female colleague.

But hundreds of WhatsApp messages, appearing to be exchanged between him and the complainant, were then leaked to the F1 world.

Horner has remained steadfast throughout, and strode hand-in-hand with Geri along the paddock one hour and 45 minutes before the lights went out.

Red Bull’s majority shareholder and Horner ally, Thai billionaire Chalerm Yoovidhya, also joined the duo on the team’s terrace in a very public show of support for the embattled team principal.

Horner planted a kiss on wife Geri before he headed to the Red Bull pit wall to watch his team blow away their rivals. Geri later headed to the garage to watch the race.

The pair stood together smiling underneath the podium as Verstappen celebrated his 18th win from the past 19 races.

An emotional Horner continued: “I have the support of an incredible family, an incredible wife, an incredible team and everybody within that team.

“And my focus is going racing, winning racing and doing the best I can.

“It was a day about starting the season in the best possible way. My focus is on this team, my family, my wife and racing.”

Horner was also quizzed about the leaked Google file which was sent from an anonymous email account to 149 members of the F1 paddock – including FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem, F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali and the grid’s nine other team principals, as well as members of the media.

Horner said: “I am not going to comment on anonymous speculative messages from an unknown source. I am not going to comment on what motives whatever person may have for doing this.

“Obviously, it has not been pleasant with some of the unwanted attention, but the focus is very much on the cars and my focus has been on what is happening on track and the result today demonstrates where the focus is and we move onwards.

“There was a full, lengthy internal process that was completed by an independent KC and the grievance that was raised was dismissed. End of. Move on.

“You could see what it (the win) meant to the whole team. It is better to do your talking on the track.

“I have always been entirely confident that I would be here and my focus is on the season, and the races we have ahead.”

Horner is set to be back in the spotlight in just five days when the cars hit the track in practice for the next round in Saudi Arabia.

Max Verstappen delivered for Christian Horner’s crisis-hit Red Bull team by winning the opening race of the Formula One season in Bahrain on Saturday.

The build-up to the first round of the campaign here in the Gulf Kingdom has totally been overshadowed by allegations whirling around Red Bull team principal Horner.

But Horner, who was joined by his wife Geri in a show of unity ahead of Saturday’s 57-lap race, can take temporary relief from seeing Verstappen lead a Red Bull one-two, with Sergio Perez second.

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz took the chequered flag in third, one place ahead of team-mate Charles Leclerc with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton a disappointing fifth and seventh respectively for Mercedes. McLaren’s Lando Norris finished sixth.

During an extraordinary week in Bahrain, Horner was exonerated by Red Bull Racing parent’s company, Red Bull GmbH, on Wednesday following an internal probe into allegations of “inappropriate made by a female colleague.

Hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him were then leaked to the F1 world a day later.

Horner has remained defiant throughout and put on a show of unity with his Spice Girl wife Geri, as they strode hand-in-hand along the paddock one hour and 45 minutes before the lights went out.

Red Bull’s majority shareholder and Horner ally, Thai billionaire Chalerm Yoovidhya, joined the duo on the team’s terrace in another public show of support for Horner.

Horner planted a kiss on wife Geri before he headed to pit wall to watch his team blow away their rivals.

Verstappen has raced to the past three world championships and his crushing streak looks set to continue into 2024 following a commanding lights-to-flag win.

The Dutch driver saw off team-mate Perez’s challenge by 22.4 seconds to take his 18th win from the last 19 F1 races and, remarkably, his 36th victory since Hamilton last won a grand prix.

“Great start to the year, guys, a one-two finish, as well so fantastic,” said Verstappen over the team radio.

Horner replied: “As you say, Max, pole-position, one-two finish, fastest lap, a clean sweep. A brilliant way to start the year. Thanks very much.”

Such was Red Bull’s stranglehold on last season’s championship, that they were afforded the luxury of turning their attention to this year’s machine earlier than their competitors.

And revered designer Adrian Newey appears to have built a car which could take Verstappen to another stratosphere.

After holding off the challenge from Ferrari’s Leclerc on the run down to the opening corner, his victory never appeared in doubt. By the end of lap 11, Verstappen had already pulled 10 seconds clear.

Behind, Russell was on the move – taking second from Leclerc on the third lap in an encouraging start for the Mercedes man.

But that would be as good as it got for the Silver Arrows, with Perez moving ahead of Russell on the exit of Turn 4 on lap 14 before Sainz gazumped the British driver for third three laps later.

Hamilton started ninth and was making little early progress, complaining on lap 25 that his seat was broken.

He started to make his way through the field, getting past McLaren’s Oscar Piastri on lap 35 and then Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin for seventh on lap 39.

But the seven-time world champion, who will join Ferrari next year, made no inroads into Norris ahead before Mercedes’ poor evening was dealt another blow when Leclerc took fourth off Russell with 11 laps to run.

Hamilton finished 50 seconds behind Verstappen.

For Verstappen, it was another emphatic display, with fireworks exploding into the night sky as he cemented his status as the overwhelming favourite to march to another title – despite Red Bull’s ongoing off-track turbulence.

Christian Horner continues to fight for his Formula One career following a string of allegations against the Red Bull team principal.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the key questions surrounding Horner, Red Bull, and the sport.

What were the accusations against Horner?

On February 5, Red Bull Racing’s parent company GmbH confirmed Horner was under investigation following an accusation of “inappropriate behaviour”. The company said it “takes these matters extremely seriously and the investigation will be completed as soon as practically possible”.

Horner denied the claim – made by a female colleague – and remained as team principal and CEO of the Milton Keynes-based team. It is understood the complainant also continued in her role.

How did Red Bull react?

Horner was questioned by a lawyer for eight hours at a secret London location. There was no immediate resolution and Horner subsequently appeared at Red Bull’s car launch on February 15.

He continued to dismiss the allegations. Horner then headed to Bahrain for last week’s three-day test before returning to England, while Red Bull’s Austrian board met to discuss his future.

What was the verdict?

On the eve of this weekend’s curtain raiser – and 23 days after it emerged Horner was under investigation – Red Bull GmBH said the grievance against the 50-year old had been dismissed.

The corporation said it was confident the investigation had been “fair, rigorous and impartial” but added that the report, understood to stretch to 150 pages, is “confidential”. However, a number of senior figures in the sport felt Red Bull’s probe lacked transparency.

So, what happened next?

Twenty-four hours later, a number of messages and images apparently exchanged between Horner and the complainant were sent from an anonymous email account to 149 members of the F1 paddock – including FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem, F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali and the grid’s nine other team principals, as well as members of the media.

What did Horner say?

Horner released a statement saying: “I will not comment on anonymous speculation, but to reiterate I have always denied the allegations.”

He was back in the paddock a day later for qualifying as Max Verstappen took pole position. There was speculation that another damning email leak against Horner would arrive on Friday – but it failed to materialise.

Will the FIA take any action?

It is understood the FIA explored bringing a disrepute charge against Horner – and assessed the legalities of seeking Red Bull to hand over its report – but no action has emerged.

Neither F1, nor its regulator, has commented publicly on the latest allegations. Horner met with both Domenicali and Ben Sulayem on Friday.

And what about Red Bull’s sponsors and partners?

There is thought to be considerable unrest and unease behind the scenes following the latest allegations to hit Horner – but there has been no public comment from Red Bull Racing’s two biggest partners – Ford and Oracle.

Will Horner be on the pit wall for Saturday’s race?

Yes. It is understood Horner remains defiant that he can see out the controversy.

His wife Geri Halliwell flew to Bahrain and could be trackside on Saturday, while Chalerm Yoovidhya, who owns 51 per cent of the Red Bull group, might also be in attendance.

Lewis Hamilton believes Mercedes have delivered a car capable of putting him in the fight at the front – despite qualifying only ninth for Saturday’s opening round of the season in Bahrain.

Max Verstappen saw off Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc by two tenths to capture pole position, with Hamilton’s team-mate George Russell next up, a third of a second back.

Hamilton raised hope that he might take the challenge to Verstappen when he finished fastest in practice here on Thursday.

However, the 39-year-old, entering his final campaign for the Silver Arrows before he joins Ferrari, finished half-a-second adrift.

But an optimistic Hamilton said: “It is amazing to see how close everyone is, and George’s position is testament to how amazing a job all those working at the factory have done to give us a car to fight.

“The car is really fantastic, and a big improvement from previous years.

“It is stable and more fun to drive. For George to be three tenths off Max is incredible and it shows what is possible.

“We just have to add performance, but if that is our platform, we can definitely chase for the rest of the season.

“For the first qualifying session to be as poor as that when you put in so much preparation is disappointing, but that is racing.”

Verstappen is expected to romp to his fourth consecutive world championship in his all-conquering Red Bull machine.

But the Dutch driver was made to work for the 33rd pole of his career under the thousands of bulbs that light up the Sakhir Circuit.

Verstappen headed into his final run with less than a tenth in his pocket over Leclerc before extending his margin to the Ferrari driver.

Despite taking top spot, Verstappen apologised for what he perceived to be a scruffy lap.

“Don’t be sorry, Max,” said a weary-sounding Christian Horner – whose Formula One future is again in the spotlight after hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him to a female colleague were leaked. “You finished two tenths clear of Charles and three tenths ahead of George.”

Verstappen added: “It was a lot of fun. I am very happy to be on pole, and it was a little bit unexpected. The car came to us and I felt happier than I did in practice.

“The race is going to be close, too, but we will see tomorrow. I am confident we can have a strong race.”

While Verstappen qualified first, Sergio Perez was fifth in the other Red Bull, one place ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso.

British driver Lando Norris will line up in seventh for McLaren, with Williams’ Alex Albon 13th.

Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly will prop up the grid following a miserable qualifying session for the Alpine team.

Red Bull’s superstar driver Max Verstappen stopped short of providing his full support for embattled team principal Christian Horner.

Verstappen temporarily took the spotlight off Horner – whose Formula One future is again in the spotlight after hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him to a female colleague were leaked – when the Dutchman secured pole position for Saturday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

But moments after capturing top spot, Verstappen was quizzed on how the latest allegations surrounding Red Bull had affected his preparations, and if Horner remains the right person to lead the crisis-hit team.

“From my side, and, from the mechanics and engineers, we’re fully focused on the car, and fully focused on the weekend which is how it should be and that is what we continue to do,” said Verstappen.

Appearing to swerve the question about Horner, he added: “It’s not our business to get involved in that. We are paid to do our job, that is what we are out there doing, and that is what we love doing and that is what I focus on.”

Verstappen was asked again if he still had faith in Horner.

“When I look at how Christian operates within the team he has been an incredible boss so from the performance kind of things you can’t question that,” he added.

“I speak to Christian a lot and he is fully committed to the team.

“He is here for the performance, and of course he is a little bit distracted, but we just focus on performance and that is how we all work together.”

On Wednesday, Horner was cleared to continue as Red Bull team principal following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” by the F1 team’s parent company, Red Bull GmbH. He has always denied the claims.

But just 24 hours later, a number of messages and images apparently exchanged between Horner and the complainant were sent from an anonymous email account to 149 members of the F1 paddock – including FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem, F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali and the grid’s nine other team principals, as well as members of the media.

Domenicali and Ben Sulayem spoke on Friday to discuss the next steps.

Horner’s wife, Geri Halliwell, flew to Bahrain and could be with her husband at Saturday’s race. Chalerm Yoovidhya, who owns 51 per cent of the Red Bull group, might also be in attendance.

Neither F1’s American owners, Liberty Media, nor its regulator, the FIA, have seen Red Bull GmbH’s report into Horner, which is thought to stretch to 150 pages and was said to be “confidential”.

The FIA considered the legalities of asking Red Bull to hand over its report, and examining if Horner might have breached two clauses of its International Sporting Code.

Article 12.2.1.c of the code states that a competitor will have committed an offence if there was “any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any Competition or to the interests of motor sport generally”.

Article 12.2.1.f highlights “any words, deeds or writings that have caused moral injury or loss to the FIA, its bodies, its members or its executive officers, and more generally on the interest of motor sport and on the values defended by the FIA”.

Meanwhile, article 12.2.1.g states that “any failure to cooperate in an investigation” would breach the code.

However, the likelihood of any action receded as another extraordinary day – which included speculation that another damning email leak would arrive but never did – wore on.

Horner spoke only once about the latest allegations as he made his way from Red Bull’s hospitality suite to the team’s garage earlier on Friday.

“I am not going to comment on anonymous speculation from unknown sources,” he said. When asked what comes next, Horner replied: “We go racing.

Max Verstappen temporarily took the spotlight off team boss Christian Horner by putting his Red Bull on pole position for the opening round of the new Formula One season in Bahrain.

The build-up to the first race of the campaign has totally been overshadowed by allegations whirling around Horner.

The 50-year-old was exonerated by Red Bull Racing parent’s company, Red Bull GmbH, following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” against a female colleague on Wednesday – before hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him were leaked to the F1 world a day later.

However, Horner, who has always denied any wrongdoing and remains in his role, was on the world champions’ pit wall here in Bahrain to see Verstappen claim his first pole of a season in which he is expected to romp to his fourth consecutive world championship in his all-conquering Red Bull machine.

But the triple world champion was made to work for the 33rd pole of his career under the thousands of bulbs that light up the Sakhir Circuit with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc second, two tenths back.

George Russell finished third for Mercedes, one place ahead of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz. Lewis Hamilton will line up in ninth on the grid.

Christian Horner vowed to go racing after breaking his silence amid the latest allegations whirling around the Red Bull team principal.

Horner’s Formula One future is again in the spotlight after hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him to a female colleague were leaked.

On Wednesday, Horner was cleared to continue as Red Bull team principal following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” by the F1 team’s parent company, Red Bull GmbH. He has always denied the claims.

But just 24 hours later, a number of messages and images apparently exchanged between Horner and the complainant were sent from an anonymous email account to 149 members of the F1 paddock – including FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and the grid’s nine other team principals, as well as members of the media – on the eve of this weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Domenicali and Ben Sulayem will meet on Friday to discuss the next steps.

Horner was quizzed about the latest allegations as he made his way from Red Bull’s hospitality suite to the team’s garage for third practice ahead of qualifying.

“I am not going to comment on anonymous speculation from unknown sources,” he said. When asked what comes next, Horner replied: “We go racing.”

It is understood that neither F1’s American owners, Liberty Media, nor its regulator, the FIA, has seen Red Bull GmbH’s report into Horner, which is thought to stretch to 150 pages and was said to be “confidential”.

It is believed that the FIA is considering the legalities of asking Red Bull to hand over its report, and examining if Horner might have breached two clauses of its International Sporting Code.

Article 12.2.1.c states that a competitor will have committed an offence if there was “any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any Competition or to the interests of motor sport generally”.

Article 12.2.1.f highlights “any words, deeds or writings that have caused moral injury or loss to the FIA, its bodies, its members or its executive officers, and more generally on the interest of motor sport and on the values defended by the FIA”.

Meanwhile, article 12.2.1.g states that “any failure to cooperate in an investigation” would breach the code.

Horner continues to operate in his role as team principal and CEO, although it is understood there is considerable unease among the team’s plethora of sponsors and partners.

Horner said in a statement on Thursday: “I will not comment on anonymous speculation, but to reiterate I have always denied the allegations.

“I respected the integrity of the independent investigation and fully cooperated with it every step of the way.

“It was a thorough and fair investigation conducted by an independent specialist barrister and it has concluded dismissing the complaint made.

“I remain fully focused on the start of the season.”

Max Verstappen may be the clear favourite for a fourth straight Formula One championship, but Paul di Resta does not see Red Bull having it all their own way in 2024.

Verstappen has dominated the sport in the past two seasons after pipping rival Lewis Hamilton to win his first title back in 2021.

The Dutchman was champion by 146 points in 2022, then stretched that gap to a staggering 290 points last year as he won 19 of 22 races.

Di Resta, who drove for Force India, hailed Red Bull's "incredible job" as they "pulled out a couple of wins they shouldn't have", but he expects Verstappen to at least have some competition in the coming campaign.

"People will get closer this year, 100 per cent," Di Resta told Stats Perform. "It's not going to be a runaway like it was.

"But to get on top of that at every grand prix with the advantage that he had at some tracks last year, I don't see how they can lose the championship, to be honest, unless somebody's got something hiding in the wind tunnel that they're going to bring out and surprise everyone with.

"Over the course of the season, I think he'll get the job done.

"I think he'll have a harder time at it, and I'd like to see them more in battle. I'd like to see them up against Lando [Norris], I'd like to see them up against Lewis, Ferrari in there as well.

"The biggest thing is when it's closer, when you're having a bad day, you're having a bad day. When you're having a good day, you're having a good day. The swing was not big enough ever because he was always winning last year."

Mercedes did not win a single race in 2023, but Di Resta sees the Silver Arrows as Red Bull's biggest rivals again in what is set to be Hamilton's final season with the team before joining Ferrari.

"I think it'll be Mercedes," he said. "They've said they're coming out with a car that's very different, very different philosophy.

"They are undoubtedly still one of the best teams in Formula One, and I think just when you look at the last 10 years and how they've gone about their business, you have to believe in that."

Embattled Red Bull team principal Christian Horner is back in the Formula One paddock for qualifying ahead of Saturday’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

Horner’s future is again in the spotlight after hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him to a female colleague were leaked.

On Wednesday, Horner was cleared to continue as Red Bull team principal following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” by the F1 team’s parent company Red Bull GmbH. He has always denied the claims.

But just 24 hours later, messages and a number of images apparently exchanged between Horner and the complainant were sent from an anonymous email account to 149 members of the F1 paddock – including FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and the grid’s nine other team principals, as well as members of the media – on the eve of this weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Horner said in a statement: “I will not comment on anonymous speculation, but to reiterate I have always denied the allegations.

“I respected the integrity of the independent investigation and fully cooperated with it every step of the way.

“It was a thorough and fair investigation conducted by an independent specialist barrister and it has concluded dismissing the complaint made.

“I remain fully focused on the start of the season.”

On Friday, Horner, 50, was seen speaking to a Formula One official at the front of Red Bull Racing’s hospitality suite.

F1 and its governing body, the FIA, are considering whether to get involved in the controversy that’s engulfed the sport.

It is understood that neither F1’s American owners Liberty Media, nor its regulator the FIA, has seen Red Bull GmbH’s report into Horner which is thought to stretch to 150 pages – and was said to be “confidential”.

Third practice begins at 3:30pm local time (12:30pm GMT), with qualifying for Saturday’s 57-lap race due to get under way at 7pm (4pm GMT).

Lewis Hamilton admitted he was shocked to finish fastest in practice for Saturday’s Formula One curtain raiser in Bahrain.

The seven-time world champion has not won a race for more than two years, but he led a surprise Mercedes one-two under the lights of the Sakhir Circuit on Thursday night.

Hamilton finished two tenths clear of team-mate George Russell, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso third.

On yet another explosive off-track day for Red Bull, Max Verstappen bemoaned the handling of his machine. He finished sixth.

The Silver Arrows went under the radar at last week’s test in the Gulf kingdom, but they were quietly optimistic heading into Thursday’s running – and the second session belonged to the team that once dominated the sport.

“This has been a crazy Thursday,” said Hamilton, 39. “I don’t understand it, and it is a shock to see us where we are, but we will take it for now.

“We cannot get ahead of ourselves. We need to keep our head down and keep working on the setup.

“But I am much happier with the car. I have a better feel of it approaching the corners, and there are other areas that have been fixed and improved.

“It feels like a race car and the last two cars didn’t feel like that. It is a really good platform to work from. We have to keep our heads down and keep on chasing.”

Hamilton is gearing up for his final season with Mercedes after he elected to terminate his £100million deal 12 months early to join Ferrari in 2025.

Mercedes have carried Hamilton to six of his record-equalling seven titles. But last year marked a second straight season without a victory for the British driver – a losing streak which now stands at 45 races – and Mercedes’ first winless campaign in a dozen years.

However, Hamilton, in his radically revised car – after the design concept which failed so spectacularly for the past two seasons was abandoned – will take faith from an encouraging day.

But Hamilton expects Verstappen, who has raced to the past three world championships, will still be the one to beat.

“I think we are going to be in the mix,” added Hamilton. “We are there or thereabouts with Ferrari and maybe Aston Martin and McLaren.

“It is going to be close, but if Max is out in front he will drive off as he has done for the past couple of years.”

Verstappen had been regarded as the heavy favourite heading into Saturday’s curtain-raiser in the Gulf kingdom.

But he struggled in the first running and then failed to match the speed of the Mercedes cars later in the day.

“Everything is s***,” yelled Verstappen over the radio. “Like miles off.”

However, the 26-year-old remained confident he would be in a strong position for the 57-lap Grand Prix.

“It is very close and maybe some people around us have turned up the engine in terms of top speed,” he said.

“I’m not too worried about the gap to first, for example. It is going to be close in qualifying. I was happier about the long run for the race.”

Christian Horner’s Formula One future is back in the spotlight after WhatsApp messages appearing to be sent by him have been leaked.

On Wednesday, Horner was cleared to continue as Red Bull team principal following an internal probe by the F1 team’s parent company Red Bull GmbH.

But just 24 hours later, hundreds of messages and a number of images apparently between Horner and the complainant were sent from an anonymous email account to members of the Formula One paddock – including FIA president Mohamed ben Sulayem, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and the grid’s nine other team principals, as well as the media – on the eve of this weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

It is unclear at this stage whether the alleged exchanges, which have been seen by the PA news agency, formed part of the investigation – of which Horner was cleared of “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague – or whether it is new evidence.

Horner has always denied the claims.

The PA news agency has approached Red Bull Racing for comment, and is also trying to confirm if the exchanges are genuine.

Horner, 50, was on the Red Bull pit wall on Thursday for both practice sessions.

Speaking on Sky Sports earlier on Thursday, he said: “I am pleased that the process is over, and I cannot comment about it.

“I am here to focus on the grand prix and the season ahead and trying to defend both of our titles.”

Horner added: “I can’t give you any further comment, but the process has been conducted and concluded.

“I am pleased to be here in Bahrain, and with the team, focused on the season ahead. Within the team it (the unity) has never been stronger.”

Daniel Ricciardo was the surprise name at the top of the time sheet in Formula One’s first practice session of the new season in Bahrain.

The Australian – driving for the newly rebranded RB team – saw off Lando Norris by just 0.032 seconds, with Oscar Piastri third in the other McLaren.

Max Verstappen, who complained about the handling of his Red Bull throughout the one-hour practice session, finished sixth, with George Russell seventh and Lewis Hamilton ninth for Mercedes.

Verstappen heads into the curtain raiser here in the Gulf kingdom as the favourite to claim a fourth consecutive world championship.

But the Dutch driver appeared unsettled in the opening running at a gusty Sakhir circuit.

“Everything is s***,” he yelled over the radio. “Like miles off.”

Ricciardo was dropped by McLaren at the end of 2022, but was handed a lifeline by Red Bull’s junior team midway through last season.

And although times in testing have to be treated with caution as the teams trial varying fuel loads – indeed Ricciardo set his speediest lap on the softest tyre compound – RB could prove a surprise package. Ricciardo’s team-mate Yuki Tsunoda finished fourth, three tenths back.

Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso took fifth spot and was the first of the drivers not to use the soft compound. Verstappen, Russell, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc – who finished eighth – and Hamilton also did not post a lap on the speediest rubber.

Hamilton finished four tenths off Ricciardo, but the Mercedes camp are quietly optimistic that they could have the speed to perform at the sharp end.

At the other end of the grid, Alpine and Haas propped up the order with Nico Hulkenberg last of the 20 runners, five seconds off the pace.

The second practice session of the day takes place at 6pm local time (3pm GMT) and is more representative of the conditions the drivers will face in Friday’s qualifying and Saturday’s race.

Christian Horner said Red Bull has “never been stronger” after he was given the green light to remain as team principal.

Horner was in the Bahrain paddock on Thursday morning after he was cleared of “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

Speaking on Sky Sports ahead of the opening round of the Formula One season, Horner, 50, said: “I am pleased that the process is over, and I cannot comment about it.

“I am here to focus on the grand prix and the season ahead and trying to defend both of our titles.”

Horner added: “I can’t give you any further comment, but the process has been conducted and concluded.

“I am pleased to be here in Bahrain, and with the team, focused on the season ahead. Within the team it (the unity) has never been stronger.”

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner was under investigation following an accusation made against him by a female colleague.

Horner emphatically denied the claim and, on Wednesday, he was cleared of wrongdoing.

Red Bull GmbH said it was confident the investigation had been “fair, rigorous and impartial”, but added that the report – understood to stretch to 150 pages – is “confidential”.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff had called for the investigation to be conducted with transparency but no details of the allegations against Horner were reported. The complainant also has a right to appeal against the verdict.

Addressing the controversy on Thursday, Williams team principal James Vowles said he has to believe Red Bull’s process has been thorough.

Vowles said: “I have a responsibility for Williams, and if anything like that happens here, I would want to make sure we properly investigate it and do a robust process that is clear to the outside world what has happened and what we can do to rectify that.

“I trust that Red Bull have done a strong process and we have to in that circumstance.

“But what I want is us as a sport to be proud that we are sitting on a set of foundations that is one of inclusivity, one of openness and transparency and all I ask in that matter is that we make sure we have faith and trust that all of the organisations are working for the same standards.”

A statement from Red Bull GmbH on Wednesday read: “The independent investigation into the allegations made against Mr Horner is complete and Red Bull can confirm that the grievance has been dismissed.

“The complainant has a right of appeal. Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial.

“The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned. Red Bull will continue striving to meet the highest workplace standards.”

Horner, who has protested his innocence throughout, was questioned by a lawyer for eight hours earlier this month at a secret London location.

Horner has been Red Bull team principal since they entered F1 19 years ago and is the longest-serving boss on the grid.

He has overseen seven drivers’ world championships and six constructors’ titles.

Red Bull have dominated the sport in recent seasons and last year won 21 of the 22 races with Dutch driver Max Verstappen setting a new record for 10 consecutive victories as he wrapped up his third title.

Horner, who is married to former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, was awarded a CBE for his services to motorsport in the New Year Honours.

Team principal Christian Horner was with his Red Bull team in Bahrain on Thursday morning after he was cleared of “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner was under investigation following an accusation made against him by a female colleague.

Horner emphatically denied the claim and the 50-year-old – who arrived in Bahrain on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s opening race of the season – has been cleared of wrongdoing.

Red Bull GmbH said it was confident the investigation had been “fair, rigorous and impartial”, but added that the report – understood to stretch to 150 pages – is “confidential”.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff had called for the investigation to be conducted with transparency but no details of the allegations against Horner were reported.

Horner has made no public comment. The complainant also has a right to appeal against the verdict.

A statement from Red Bull GmbH read: “The independent investigation into the allegations made against Mr Horner is complete and Red Bull can confirm that the grievance has been dismissed.

“The complainant has a right of appeal. Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial.

“The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned. Red Bull will continue striving to meet the highest workplace standards.”

Horner, who has protested his innocence throughout, was questioned by a lawyer for eight hours earlier this month at a secret London location.

During the internal probe, he continued to be present for official Red Bull activities – including a car launch in Milton Keynes earlier this month, where he insisted it was “business as usual”, and pre-season testing in Bahrain last week.

Horner flew back to England as he awaited his fate before heading back to the Gulf kingdom on a private jet on Wednesday.

Horner has been Red Bull team principal since they entered F1 19 years ago and is the longest-serving boss on the grid.

He has overseen seven drivers’ world championships and six constructors’ titles.

Red Bull have dominated the sport in recent seasons and last year won 21 of the 22 races with Dutch driver Max Verstappen setting a new record for 10 consecutive victories as he wrapped up his third title.

Horner, who is married to former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, was awarded a CBE for his services to motorsport in the New Year Honours.

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