During a brief but bright Formula 1 career, his Marussia colleagues recall a driver with an inspirational talent that had him marked for a Ferrari drive.
It was an opportunity long in the making for Bianchi, who was the product of a European racing dynasty with a proud but painful past.
Roberto Bianchi had been a mechanic with the Alfa Romeo grand prix team during the 1930s, so there was an inevitability that sons Lucien and Mauro – naturalised Belgians, after their father moved from his native Italy – would gravitate towards motor sport.
Lucien in particular had a distinguished career, winning the 1962 Sebring 12 Hours in a Ferrari 250TRI shared with Jo Bonnier. His most significant victory came six years later, at Le Mans, when he and Pedro Rodríguez guided their JW Automotive Ford GT40 to victory, five laps clear of the field. Celebrations were tempered, however, by the fact Mauro had crashed his Alpine heavily a few hours before the finish, the younger Bianchi suffering serious burns that would end his racing career.
Lucien was due to contest the event with Alfa Romeo the following season, but was killed during the pre-race test weekend when his car spun on the approach to Mulsanne Corner and speared into a telegraph pole.
For a time that signalled the end of racing for the Bianchis, but Mauro’s son Philippe eventually settled in southern France and ran a kart circuit… which in turn caught the eye of his own son Jules. Speaking to Motor Sport in 2013, Jules said: “I think I was about three when I became aware of racing. It obviously helped that my dad ran a track and I have been immersed ever since.”
In the slipstream of a fruitful kart career, he switched to cars in 2007 and won the French Formula Renault title at the first time of asking. He became European F3 champion two years later, earning himself a place within the Ferrari Driver Academy, and ran at the front in GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 for the following three seasons, though further titles proved elusive.
His chances of an F1 seat looked slim as the 2013 campaign approached, but a last-minute sponsorship glitch obliged Brazilian Luiz Razia to step down from his intended berth with the Marussia team – and Ferrari massaged a deal to put Bianchi in the seat. The team had occupied a place towards the back of the grid since its inception as Virgin Racing in 2010, but the broad assumption was that this would be a perfect, low-key finishing school, an opportunity for Bianchi to gain F1 experience while awaiting a suitable vacancy at Ferrari in the longer term.
At Monaco in 2014, he triggered one of the most flamboyant celebrations ever seen for a ninth-place finish – he’d just recorded the first and only points the cash-strapped team would score in any of its iterations – but on October 5 that year he crashed heavily at Suzuka. His car slithered off the track at Dunlop Curve and struck a rescue vehicle that had been dispatched to recover Adrian Sutil’s abandoned Sauber. He suffered serious head injuries to which he would succumb, aged 25, on July 17 the following year, having never regained consciousness.
“He was only ever positive — he got all 220 members of the team working totally behind him”
“We knew he was an exceptional racing driver,” says Graeme Lowdon, who was Marussia’s CEO, “because we’d watched him racing against us in F3. But he also had a lot about him as a person. He had the ability to connect with people very quickly. I’d been talking to [Ferrari’s then team principal] Stefano Domenicali and we signed the contract in the Barcelona paddock during pre-season testing, sitting in the Ferrari motorhome on a drizzly evening.
“You might assume a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy would come to a small team thinking of it as little more than a stepping stone, but he wasn’t like that at all. When he walked into our garage the following morning, he was delighted to be in F1 and you could see straight away how keen he was to form a strong relationship with the mechanics and engineers. He was very open and friendly with everyone, there was no aloofness at all. John and I could sense how excited – and grateful – he was to have this opportunity. He had absolutely the right attitude and everyone on his car always wanted to go the extra mile for him – and that’s an environment all the really good drivers are able to create.”
Marussia’s team principal John Booth harboured similar thoughts. “He was hard on the circuit, but out of the car I never saw him throw a strop – despite all the disappointments that came about simply through where we were on the grid. He was only ever positive with the people around him and I think that was his biggest attribute – he got all 220 members of the team working totally behind him. He probably only visited the factory seven or eight times, but each time he did he made a real impact on all who worked there.”
Lowdon says: “He made sure he was very much part of the team and it was great to have somebody like that on board. The performance of our car relative to others was obviously influenced by more factors than the driver alone, but what you want is somebody who extracts the absolute most from whatever you give them and we always had that sense with Jules. We couldn’t have asked for any more from him. Out of the car he was usually mild-mannered and softly spoken, but that masked his competitive streak.”
That Monaco result is the one most people remember, but there were equally eye-catching moments that might have escaped the wider public’s attention. “Monaco apart,” Lowdon says, “the best bits were more to do with individual laps or incidents than results. I remember John and I turning on our pit stools several times and just looking at each other in amazement. What he did wasn’t always obvious, though, simply because we were so far down the grid.”
Booth adds, “I’d say he got the best from our car every time he sat in it – and he always shone whenever conditions were tricky – as they were during qualifying at Silverstone in 2014. He put the car 12th on the grid that day, which sticks in my mind.”
Do both feel sure that his future destiny lay with Ferrari? “Sooner or later, I think that was a cast-iron certainty,” Booth says. “You could see from the way the Ferrari team reacted to him that they already regarded him as one of theirs.”
Lowdon concurs. “In my mind that was 100 per cent nailed on,” he says. “We’d felt that right from the first discussion we’d had with Stefano. As everyone knows, Ferrari had a tradition of only taking drivers with lots of miles under their belt but I could see Jules slotting straight in there. He was very mature and it’s interesting that [Bianchi’s godson] Charles Leclerc has since gone there. He used to come to grands prix with us as a guest and Jules would tell us to watch out, because Charles was going to be really quick.
“It was a bit surreal watching Charles pass Romain Grosjean at Rascasse during the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix – it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, because it was a carbon copy of a fantastic move Jules had pulled on Kamui Kobayashi at the same point in 2014.
“After the accident at Suzuka, I remember John saying that there would be plenty more drivers in years to come, but there would never be another Jules. That summed it up: he had the ability to be forceful on the track as and when required – and also off the track, because he could be extremely robust in engineering discussions, though at the same time he was always extremely polite.”
The inspiration for Booth’s observation?
“I think it was Jules’s warmth that struck a chord,” he says. “We had all become good pals and, had he lived, I think that would have continued wherever he had gone in the future. I have run lots of gifted young drivers over the years, but have never known anyone who could unite people in the manner that Jules could.
“One of the reasons I always wanted to do this job was to have an opportunity to work with people like him.”