Jules Bianchi, who succumbed in July to the injuries sustained in his Japanese Grand Prix accident last October, was a hard racer beneath a sheath of humility. Whenever tragedy strikes, we inevitably think back to crucial circumstances that might have changed the course of history for a happier outcome – and in the case of Bianchi, one such was his performance for Ferrari in the young driver test, Abu Dhabi 2010.
Having just finished third in the championship in his GP2 rookie season, the Ferrari Driver Academy’s first junior signing was under consideration as a potential Felipe Massa replacement for 2011. Three days in the Ferrari at the end of the season gave him a massive opportunity – but perhaps one that arrived a little too early. His race simulation runs were described as “outstanding”, team members confirming they were actually better than Massa’s had been in the GP a few days earlier. But each time he was given a qualifying simulation, low fuel and new tyres with the necessity of producing the ‘big lap’ first time, he fluffed it; not badly, just the odd small mistake or under-commitment as lack of experience told on a driver who did not come with that ‘I am invincible’ confidence so few possess. It suggested he might not be ready for the massive pressures that would have come with that drive – and the direct comparison with Fernando Alonso. He was a driver who seemed to produce his best only once he was settled and had understood everything – as that humility suggested. Had he aced one of those qualifying simulations, who knows?
The Scuderia retained its faith, farmed him out to Force India as a Friday driver and subsequently to Marussia, while retaining him as its main tester. At Marussia, far from being disheartened at being overlooked for a 2013 Force India race seat, he gave it his all as he set about learning the intricacies of being an F1 race driver – and Marussia was the perfect simpatico environment to bring out his best stuff.
He drove with a controlled aggression and, as his experience built, he was beginning regularly to access a very high level. His ninth place at Monaco last year, famously gaining Marussia two championship points, was reward for a fantastically combative performance. His pass of Kamui Kobayashi’s Caterham into Rascasse – three gentle, non-damaging, tyre nudges creating a gap that was otherwise not there – was masterful. The day before, until a differential fault intervened, it looked like he might have made Q2 on merit, which would have been a stunning achievement given his equipment.
Later in the year, whenever quicker cars hit problems in Q1, Bianchi was always there to take full advantage – and got the little team’s car into Q2 on three out of four races between Silverstone and Spa. He looked every inch a credible candidate for an opportunity with a top team and Luca di Montezemolo has since said that if Ferrari had been required to field three cars this year – as at one time looked a distinct possibility – Bianchi would have been in one of them. As it was, on the morning of his accident, a Ferrari-brokered deal had been agreed for him to race with Sauber in 2015.
At Suzuka he was racing hard, as ever. On worn intermediates, fighting Ericsson’s Caterham, needing enough of a gap to be able to pit for new rubber and remain ahead, he couldn’t afford to be surrendering more time than was necessary in the yellow flag zone for Sutil’s off at Dunlop. Light on grip, with a treacherous damp patch just outside a dry racing line that was becoming increasingly hard to pick out in the fading light, he lost control. A standard racing incident with an unhappily non-standard outcome. His brave fight is now over, leaving behind a memory of a bright talent and an all-round good guy. It’s 21 years since F1’s previous fatalities, but Bianchi’s fate reminds us that it remains an inherently dangerous activity. Mark Hughes