With the dust settling on one driver announcement further up the grid at Force India, the man who was in strong contention for that seat has ended up on the grid anyway. Jules Bianchi has been announced as partner to Max Chilton as Marussia replacing Luiz Razia, who, by all accounts, has encountered some “funding issues”.
It’s hard to get a handle on just how good 23-year-old Bianchi is. There are days when he looks like the next big thing, but others when you wonder who thought it’d be sensible to let him take the controls of a racing car. Fast, yes; consistent, not so much.
The Frenchman enjoys the backing of Ferrari, ranking as then top man in their Driver Academy and acting as their test driver in 2012 (he ran extensively at the Magny-Cours Young Driver Test).
But it’s often questioned why the team have kept faith with him following three patchy seasons on the fringes of F1. 2009 F3 Euro Series champion, he entered GP2 in 2010 amidst much fanfare, supposedly set to match the feats of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Hulkenburg in securing a Euro Series/GP2 back-to-back for the stellar ART squad.
But Bianchi failed to win a race as Pastor Maldonado and Sergio Perez monopolised the victories. He returned in 2011, again with ART, but endured a nightmare start to the campaign and never regained the momentum needed to challenge Romain Grosjean. Third again, and only after a late flurry of podiums, was a disappointing return on two years with the series’ most successful team.
The Red Bull junior programme has a strict policy: fail to perform at a very high level and you’ll get the boot. It’s fair to suggest that Helmut Marko would have handed Bianchi has marching orders following the 2011 season, in which the Frenchman crashed far too often and failed to contend for a GP2 title he should have at least been in the hunt for.
In 2012 he switched to Formula Renault 3.5 with Tech 1, another crack French squad, and only lost the crown when rival Robin Frijns punted him off at the season finale (Frijns received a time penalty but still beat Bianchi). Okay, given the comparative experience Jules should never have been in a position where the prodigious Dutchman could beat him, but runner-up spot was still an achievement. Given the depth of the field it certainly stacks up better than the equivalent of winning GP2 in 2012. There were still cracks in his armour, but it’d be fair to say 2012 was his best season since that Euro Series success.
Not that all this adds up to him being a potential successor to Fernando Alonso at Ferrari. So why do they support him so vehemently?
It’s certainly not harmed him to be managed by Nicolas Todt, son of former Ferrari boss Jean, who also manages Felipe Massa. Though Todt Sr. has left the Scuderia the family still exerts significant influence at the team – how else did Nicolas manage to swing Massa a new contract amidst the Brazilian’s horrendous early 2012 form?
This leads to another noteworthy point: Marussia may have used Bianchi’s signing as a bargaining tool to gain cut-price Ferrari engines for 2014. They get a better deal on their new motors and a fast, if still unproven, young racer into the bargain. Things are never as simple as ‘we want that driver because he’s fast’ in F1.
Ultimately we should give him the credit he’s due: on his day Bianchi is the equal of any of his peers. During his junior career the Frenchman has raced and beaten the likes of Perez, Maldonado and Grosjean, all of whom have shown themselves to be more than up to F1 standard. Of the 2013 rookies he has better pedigree than Williams much-vaunted new boy Valtteri Bottas, Sauber’s Esteban Guttierez (who was his team-mate in 2011) and particularly the man alongside him now, Max Chilton.
If things go right he could be very impressive. He has the ability to beat a strong percentage of the grid, make no mistake about that. But he also has the potential to be roundly beaten in the early races, let his head drop and fade into obscurity. Neither outcome would surprise us.
As has been the case over the past few seasons, it’s simply a case of waiting to find out which Jules Bianchi turns up.