When it came, the news was partially expected. Philippe Bianchi recently hinted that his son’s prospects of making any kind of recovery were looking more distant and, on Saturday morning, Europe awoke to learn that Jules had passed away. Nine months after his shocking accident at Suzuka, the Frenchman became the first driver since Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna to die as a result of injuries sustained during a Formula 1 race weekend.
In the immediate aftermath, social and conventional media channels were swamped with tributes – most of them dignified, some unnecessarily sensational. One leading analyst mentioned Bianchi in the same breath as Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, but the prosaic truth is that we shall never know how good a driver he might have become.
His career wasn’t so much chosen as inevitable. Grandfather Mauro was a works Abarth driver during the early 1960s, great-uncle Lucien (killed during testing at Le Mans in 1969, one year after winning the race) was an accomplished all-rounder and father Philippe ran a kart track.
Immersed in the sport from a young age, Bianchi enjoyed a successful kart career, won the French Formula Renault title in 2007 (his debut season), became European F3 champion in 2009, finished third in the GP2 Series in both 2010 and 2011 and came within a final-race tangle of lifting the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 title. Late in 2009 the Ferrari Driver Academy signed him as its first recruit and he remained affiliated to the programme for the balance of his career.
For a while it looked as though he might slip through F1’s net. He’d tested regularly – and successfully – for Force India in 2012 and was thought to be in the frame for a full-time race seat. Needing consistent points finishes and the accompanying cash, however, the team opted instead for Adrian Sutil’s experience. That left no free seats on the grid, but Marussia snapped him up – after previously confirmed driver Luiz Razia ran into sponsorship difficulties – and Bianchi swiftly became a popular member of the team.
Early that season, team principal John Booth said, “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. We might lack a bit of downforce, but he quickly appreciated that the people in this team know what they’re doing. He has put his trust in all of us, 100 per cent.”
Out of the car, Bianchi was quiet, unassuming, polite and utterly dedicated to his craft. His racing CV – including a memorable points finish for Marussia in Monaco last season – underlines a level of potential that was greater than most and his car’s body language invariably implied likewise.
Some GP2 drivers are fun to behold because they’re hanging on by their fingertips, the laws of physics constantly threatening to wrest control. Bianchi tended to be equally spectacular… by dint of being wholly in command and capable of bending the car to his whim. It was the same when he stepped up to F1. He’d tested for only a day and a half before making his Grand Prix debut in Melbourne, but after the opening free practice session Motor Sport reported, “Marussia rookie Jules Bianchi was absolutely fantastic to watch, a paragon of fluid aggression whose ability will be masked by the inevitability of his place in the pecking order.”
It was a privilege to watch him.