By Lee McKenzie
The last week has been incredibly tough for everyone in the Formula 1 paddock.
We went to Japan worrying about a typhoon and left with no care of the weather but our minds filled with of nothing but thoughts of Jules Bianchi.
Jules is universally liked in the paddock and he achieved what other young drivers often struggle to do; gain immediate respect from the older set as well as hang out with the younger drivers too. He scored Marussia’s only points in Monaco this year but his talent and connections with Ferrari have always meant he was taken more seriously than some other drivers who come and go at the teams at the back of the grid. His association with Marussia was seen as the first step in a long F1 career.
The guys at Marussia are some of the hardest working, friendly and professional people you will come across. They’ve been through so much in the last two years, from the desperately sad incident with Maria de Villota, to just the daily battle to get the team from race to race – a battle which affects several teams these days – and now this. No one ever deserves it but Marussia has been through enough in its short time in F1.
I have known of Jules Bianchi for many years as he progressed through the ranks, but it was only when he came to the paddock in 2012 as reserve driver for Force India that I got to know him. Always polite and understated, he carried out his work during that year with professionalism and used his time in F1 well, building contacts and respect in what can often be a tricky environment.
It was at the preseason test in 2013 when it was announced that he would drive for Marussia. I was there in Barcelona and Jules had some telephone interviews to do during the afternoon. The press officer had to return to the UK and my good friend and BTCC driver Marc Hynes, who is also involved in Marussia through his time with Manor racing, asked me to help with the interviews. I had done and still do some driver PR so it was no problem for me to help out.
I sat in the truck with Jules, who was a bit surprised that 10 minutes after interviewing him for the BBC I was then assisting his interviews to the French and other European media. I was responsible for dialling, using my best telephone voice to explain they had 10 minutes to speak to Jules as he was very popular and then handed over the phone to him and off he went. For some reason, the phone was quite temperamental and there were a few wrong numbers and my French and Italian weren’t really up to a full on discussion with journalists. It was a surreal afternoon but it was fun. He was patient with me and a dream for the interviewers.
Last year we filmed at the Marussia factory in Banbury for a feature for the BBC. Jules and Max Chilton were giving me a guided tour but of course there had to be a competitive element so we had a race with remote controlled cars. The problem was the floor was useless when it came to grip so Jules decided to raid the mechanics drawers, found some electrical tape and double it over so the sticky side was on the outside. It worked a treat – grip that Pirelli would be proud of. Even for some friendly, fun filming, it gave Jules a chance to win. Typical driver!
The atmosphere in the paddock in Sochi was unsettled – one resigned to the fact that F1 had to carry on, but it was by no means a normal weekend. Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa seriously struggled in the press conference on Thursday. Adrian Sutil must still be haunted by what he saw in Suzuka as he stood by watching his car being rescued by the recovery tractor. Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutiérrez were Jules’ former team-mates in the junior categories. Jean-Éric Vergne is his close friend and was very shaken, but we could list all of his close friends and everyone who was affected and the list would be enormous, because he is loved by so many of the drivers and teams.
Huge respect must also go Max Chilton who, along with Graeme Lowdon, the President of Marussia, became the focus and spokes-people for the team. They both handled things incredibly well, especially Max who had the added task of getting back into the car and driving.
I don’t want to discuss what happened on track, or why it happened. The drivers, teams and FIA are more than capable of ensuring it doesn’t ever happen again. For now, like so many others, all I want is to think of Jules.