Even if the pessimist in me knew this was coming, it was still with great shock and sadness that I read at 2am last night that Jules Bianchi had left us. I have been a motorsport fan for a long time and have seen its true dark side before. I have faced up to and accepted the shock and horror of seeing drivers and riders die on the track, but this one cuts particularly deep. As well as being extremely shocked – because if I’m really honest then I have to admit that I was guilty of that arrogant F1 complacency, that 1994 evoking “F1 drivers don’t die anymore” attitude – I am also about as sad as anyone can be about the death of someone they never met.
I had a lot of personal affection for Jules. His was the first name I heard when I started following junior motorsport in my teens and from the moment I saw his picture in Autosport I was behind the shy looking kid from France. I read with delight about his championship win in F3 Euro Series in 2009 and always had my fingers crossed for him as he raced through GP2 and FR3.5. When he finally made it to F1 he was more than just another driver to me, he was Jules Bianchi, the guy I had been following since the beginning of his career.
My attachment to Jules was more than just sentimental though. Coming to know Jules Bianchi the racing driver was entertaining, and in him I saw all the attributes that I so admired in my current F1 heroes. Jules only made it as far as he did because he was a fighter, a warrior with a gentle smile that belied his serious determination.
I recognised his true nature the first time I saw him race live on the day of his maiden GP2 victory at Silverstone in 2011. It was a ferociously contested race with his old F3 rival Christian Vietoris on a drying track, and prompted a standing ovation from the grandstand I was sitting in at Farm. On lap 16 he pulled off two hair raising “repasses” at Copse and Vale which proved he had bravery, incredible racecraft and an unbreakable will to win. I wasn’t sure about it until then but as he came past in the lead on the next lap, having just put one of the most ruthless moves in GP2 history on Vietoris, I felt I was looking at a future world champion.
As I have outlined in previous posts, making it to F1 requires everything to come together and that certainly didn’t happen for Jules. He is one of those rare cases where we can say he made it in spite of everything. After his F3 success in 2009, everything that could go wrong for Bianchi did. Timing is important in a drivers’ career and it was certainly against Bianchi; not only was he trying to break into F1 at a time when opportunities were limited, but he arrived at ART – GP2’s preeminent team –when their period of dominance was just ending, and they failed to consistently challenge at the front of the grid. He struggled to distinguish himself in those circumstances and he was further hindered by a spine injury he suffered in a first lap accident in Hungary.
But Jules did not give up. The two years he spent in GP2 damaged his reputation but not his confidence, and in 2012 he challenged for the FR3.5 title with Tech 1 Racing. Without taking anything away from the rookie triumph of Robin Frijns, Bianchi was extremely unlucky not to win the championship that year. He did make mistakes, but a lot of the points he lost were out of his control, such as the 18 he lost to exclusion for an illegal car in Race 1 at Aragon and the bodged pitstop which lost him third place at Spa. After all that he could still have won the title at the season finale if Frijns hadn’t channelled his inner Michael Schumacher and dumped him in the gravel on lap 21 of the final race.
A dark 2012/13 winter was made worse when he was passed over for a race seat by Force India less than a month before the new season began. It was a huge snub after a year as their test and reserve driver. That set-back would have killed the career and the spirit of most young drivers but Jules kept pushing for his big break. Jules was the leading light in a generation of talented French drivers (Grosjean, Pic, Vergne) and yet he was the only one who hadn’t made it to F1. He was also the only one who could have made the jump from the dock to that ship as it left the harbour and that is what he did.
Finally his Ferrari backing, which had so far been a blessing and curse (Ferrari would never put a rookie/inexperienced driver in one of their cars like McLaren or Red Bull) came good for him and helped him secure a seat with Marussia for the 2013 F1 season. Ferrari’s unwavering faith in him during his difficult climb up the junior ladder – they are as cannibalistic and disloyal towards their young drivers as they are towards their F1 team employees – told us all we needed to know about Bianchi’s potential.
As was typical for Jules, his F1 chance had come in less than ideal circumstances. Racing for one of the back of the grid “new teams” is F1 purgatory. Normally a driver there will race until they run out of money as the paddock passes harsh judgement on their appalling results and pockets of cash, before kissing F1 and their dreams goodbye. But Jules was different, he was always destined to get out.
In his first season he embarrassed Max Chilton – his unfortunate teammate – outscoring him 17-2 in qualifying with an average margin of half a second and out racing him 14-2. He also won the “back of the grid championship” with a best finish of 13th place elevating him above Chilton and the Caterham drivers. F1 changed a lot between 2013 and 2014 but Bianchi’s results didn’t and he continued to dominate his little arena behind the F1 midfield. The statistics weren’t everything though, there were plenty of eye catching results during his 34 Grand Prix career, but none more so than the day that will define Jules Bianchi and his legacy.
On May 25th 2014, Bianchi finished 9th in the Monaco Grand Prix. The two points he received were his and Marussia’s first and would prove extremely significant. When reminiscing about this result it is important to remember that it wasn’t just attrition that gave Jules those points. He left his mark on this race with exceptional speed, inch perfect driving and a ruthless and a brave overtaking manoeuvre on Kamui Kobayashi. He really earned those points and it was that 9th place and his Caterham toppling performances of 2013 which helped Marussia – who before 2013 had always propped up the Constructors’ Championship – survive as Manor today.
As I think about Jules’ family and friends, I will also spare a thought for his Manor colleagues. I hope that in his memory they will be able to continue to fight as Jules did to get to F1, while he was in F1, and in his final battle: right until the end.