The passing of Frenchman Jules Bianchi, who had been in a coma since his tragic accident in Japan last October, has cast a black cloud over Formula One and motorsport in general. In a season where F1 has been searching for it’s identity in the modern era, the danger the drivers racing in the pinnacle of motorsport put themselves in – for their sake, and ours – will now firmly be in the spotlight.
Jules Bianchi was a driver whose potential will never be realised. Motorsport was in his blood – grandfather Mauro was a World Champion GT driver, and his great uncle Lucien won Le Mans and raced in 17 Grands Prix – and after making the step from karting, Jules had won the French Formula Renault title by the time he was 18 years old.
Moving into Formula 3 for the next two seasons, he began to display just how fast he could be. In 2008 he finished third in the standings and won the Masters showcase at Zolder, and the next season dominated the championship by winning nearly half the races. As his career progressed into GP2 for 2010 and 2011, his success was limited to pole positions and fastest laps, but only one victory, mid-season at Silverstone.
Despite this dip in success, the Formula One world had already spotted his talent. In 2009, after Felipe Massa’s accident in Hungary, Bianchi would be a surprise name to be linked with substituting the Brazilian at Ferrari. Instead, he was the first driver signed to the team’s new young driver academy. By the time Bianchi had switched to Formula Renault 3.5 in 2012, he had already experienced F1 machinery through completing several Young Driver Tests, while acting as Ferrari’s reserve and test driver.
Despite narrowly missing out on the FR3.5 title, Bianchi still earned 8 podiums, including 3 wins. He also took part in nine practice sessions for Force India throughout the F1 season. For 2013 it was widely expected that a race seat at the team would be there for the taking, but the Silverstone based squad decided on rehiring Adrian Sutil after the early pre-season tests.
Bianchi would be given a race seat at Marussia instead, however, after Luiz Razia would have his contract terminated due to sponsorship issues. The deal was announced late into one evening at Barcelona testing, with flashbulbs going off as Jules posed in his new race overalls. He had finally arrived.
With Marussia struggling at the back of the grid with Caterham, it would be hard to shine in poor machinery, but Jules did just that, outqualifying his teammate Max Chilton by 0.75 on their respective debuts, and scoring the teams bet result of 13th at Malaysia in only his second career grand prix.
The nadir would follow in 2014, with a performance at Monaco that would deliver 9th place and the first points for Marussia in their history. Later in the season Bianchi would deputise for Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari for a mid-season test at Silverstone, and would top the timesheets with a lap faster than the Finn would set all race weekend.
It’s been rumoured that a seat at Sauber beckoned for 2015, and that Ferrari would have replaced Raikkonen with Bianchi in a few seasons time. A career at the front of Formula One beckoned.
But this isn’t about racing right now; it’s about a young man losing his life. Of course he knew the risks, accepted what could happen to him, but that doesn’t make it any easier on his parents, family, loved ones, colleagues, friends and fans alike.
We will remember Jules for his eye-catching performances lower down the grid, especially on the streets of Monte Carlo. He will be remembered for that unrealised potential in a racing car. And he will be remembered for the warm smile and easy going nature that didn’t go unnoticed by everyone involved in the sport.
Ciao Jules. Et Merci.