Had Jules Bianchi lived, it may well of been him who suffered a cruel tyre deflation in the last laps of yesterday’s British GP.
The Frenchman, who was taken from us two years ago today, was undoubtedly a future Ferrari star, with Luca di Montezemelo admitting upon Bianchi’s death that he was the driver in mind to replace Kimi Raikkonen in the future.
A champion in France’s Formula Renault championship, it was in 2009 that Bianchi would first rise to prominence, beating current Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas to win the Formula 3 Euroseries. In the days before the unified European Championship had been introduced, however, Bianchi’s acheivements merely represented a step on the ladder towards Formula 1. Such was his record that season, it was the Frenchman who was linked with the vacant Ferrari seat following Felipe Massa’s accident in Hungary, before the hapless Luca Badoer filled it, albeit briefly.
In 2010, Bianchi moved to GP2, impressing in the category; after injury curtailed his first season, he would finish 3rd in the championship in 2011, behind champion Romain Grosjean. His success in the feeder category was rewarded – a test contract with Force India followed for 2012, alongside a Formula Renault 3.5 campaign, where he would narrowly lose out to Andretti’s Formula E ace Robin Frijns in the race for the title.
In 2013, following a late collapse in Luiz Razia’s deal with Marussia, Bianchi stepped in for the season as a Ferrari junior driver. Against Max Chilton, Bianchi’s talent was obvious – it was very rare for Bianchi to lose out to his teammate, and in the two seasons they raced together, Bianchi had clearly emerged as the Number 1 driver at the team. As the 2014 season commenced, neither Marussia nor Caterham, the two remaining teams that had entered in 2010, had scored a point. In the cut-throat world of Formula 1, where only success is rewarded, some began to wonder if that day would come.
And yet that day did come. The 2014 Monaco GP was the ultimate race of attrition – only 14 of the 22 cars were classified, and just 4 stayed on the lead lap. It was a day where anyone, in any place, could succeed, and Bianchi, from 21st place, was to succeed. With the likes of Vettel, Bottas, and Gutierrez failing to finish, Bianchi found himself in 10th as the race entered its closing stages. A 5 second penalty for Bianchi, however, was sure to drop the Frenchman behind old GP2 foe Grosjean, and out of the points. When Kimi Raikkonen and Kevin Magnussen collided on Lap 74, however, Bianchi was handed the lifeline he needed to take a historic 9th place.
For Bianchi, the race in Monaco that should have been his breakthrough instead became his zenith. That October, he would crash in appalling conditions at Suzuka for the Japanese GP, his car spearing into a tractor recovering Adrian Sutil’s Sauber. The uncomfortable truth is that the FIA confirmed in December 2014 that Bianchi did not slow sufficiently for the yellow flags in force at the time. Perhaps the sheer pressure of needing to deliver a result for the financially troubled Marussia team was all too much of a temptation. Lucky to survive at all, Bianchi would spend the next 9 months in a coma, before succumbing to his injuries in Nice on the 17th July, 2015.
His legacy is already noticeable: for 2015, the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was introduced for similar scenarios, following criticism that the double waved yellows failed to deter drivers enough in dangerous areas. Whilst it was concluded that further cockpit protection would not have saved Bianchi, his accident did reopen the debate on head protection systems, and has so far lead to the trialling of first the ‘halo’, and now the ‘shield’, cockpit protection systems.
But with the likes of Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi rising through Ferrari’s ranks, it’s important to remember Ferrari’s first driver academy star: the late Jules Bianchi.