In the first of a new series, Simon Arron finds proof that it’s possible to impress the wider world from the nether reaches of the F1 grid
Ferrarisé. It’s not a term you’ll find in any official lexicon, but it’s one the French sometimes use to describe compatriot Jules Bianchi. There is no direct, single-word English equivalent, but ‘conditioned by Ferrari’ is an approximate translation.
Bianchi joined Ferrari’s driver development programme in December 2009, aged 20. He is polite and friendly, but doesn’t give much away in conversation. Some folk talk a good race, but rarely drive one. Bianchi is the opposite and reserves his most eloquent turns of phrase for the track.
There was a sense of inevitability about his career choice. He is the grandson of 1960s sports car racer Mauro Bianchi and grandnephew of Lucien, who in 1968 won the Le Mans 24 Hours and finished third in the Monaco Grand Prix.
“I think I was about three when I first became aware of motor racing,” Jules says. “My dad ran a kart track, which obviously helped, and I’ve been immersed in the sport ever since.” After a fruitful kart career, he graduated to cars in 2007 and lifted the French Formula Renault title at the first time of asking. He then stepped up to F3, finishing third in the 2008 Euroseries and winning it one year later. By now on Ferrari’s books, he was fancied to challenge for GP2 honours with multiple champion ART, but finished third in the standings for two consecutive seasons. “I made a few mistakes and there was a bit of misfortune,” he says. “Neither was a particularly bad campaign, but it’s true that more was expected.”
In 2012 he switched to Formula Renault 3.5 and dovetailed his racing with Friday morning F1 test duties for Force India, to whom Ferrari had released him on loan. He was in contention for the FR3.5 crown until the final round, but lost out following a collision with title rival Robin Frijns.
There was similar last-minute disappointment earlier this year, too, when Force India opted to re-sign known quantity Adrian Sutil rather than taking a punt on a rookie.
“At that stage,” Bianchi says, “things were looking quite complicated, because there were no more F1 seats available.” At least, not until Marussia’s Brazilian signing Luiz Razia ran into sponsorship difficulties…
“That just happened to coincide with Jules receiving bad news from Force India,” says Marussia team principal John Booth. “I can’t recall who first contacted whom, but the whole deal was settled in a few hours. He didn’t come to us with a big bundle of money, but there was a promise that sponsorship would be found along the way and that has been met.”
Bianchi’s precision, consistency and (relative) speed earned positive reviews first time out in Australia – and little has changed since.
“It has been easy to settle in,” Bianchi says. “I had very little testing – just one and a half days – but we have worked well together since the start of the year.”
Booth has been impressed by his recruit’s driving and attitude.
“Jules has a lot of test experience in cars that are much quicker than ours,” he says. “He has given the engineers a good insight into what he needs and that has been very helpful. He’s very mature for his age, too – he stays calm and doesn’t get too emotional.
“After missing the Force India drive, we wondered whether he might think, ‘Bloody hell, I’m stuck at the back of the grid with these muppets’, but that hasn’t materialised. He was grateful for the opportunity and quickly appreciated that we might lack a bit of downforce, but the people in this team know what they’re doing. He has put his trust in all of us, 100 per cent.”
The feeling appears mutual.
Career in brief
Born: 3/8/1989, Nice, France
2007: Formula Renault, French champion.
2008-09: F3, Euroseries champion.
2010-11: GP2. 2012: FR3.5, 2nd.
2013: F1 race debut, Marussia.