The outpouring of emotion and support from the motorsport world in the wake of Jules Bianchi’s death at the age of 25 is indicative of the impact that he made during his short life.
Despite racing in just 34 Formula 1 grands prix, Bianchi’s legacy will live on forever in the sport.
He forever will be the driver that did the impossible at Monaco. He forever will be the driver that saved an entire F1 team. He forever will be the driver that was destined for a future with Ferrari, an honor bestowed on very few.
He had the potential to become one of F1’s all-time greats. And like many of the greats, his career in the sport started in a rather inadvertent fashion.
After spending 2012 working as Force India’s reserve driver, Bianchi had been due to race for the team in 2013 alongside Paul di Resta. However, the team opted to re-hire Adrian Sutil after a change of heart, leaving the Frenchman without a drive.
His junior career had been an unmitigated success. Victory in the F3 Euro Series in 2009 gave Bianchi the chance to move up to GP2 for 2010, where he finished third in his rookie year. Another third place finish followed in 2011 before he finished second in Formula Renault 3.5 one year later. He was knocking hard on F1’s door.
And then an opportunity arose at Marussia F1 Team. The team had already named its line-up for the 2013 season as Max Chilton, who would ultimately be Bianchi’s only teammate in F1, and Luiz Razia, a Brazilian driver who had fought for the GP2 title in 2012.
Razia lasted just 23 days at Marussia. His sponsors failed to provide the financial backing that had been agreed to, causing his contract to be terminated before he had even raced for the team.
Bianchi was confirmed as Razia’s replacement just two weeks before the beginning of the 2013 F1 season and completed just 62 laps in the Marussia car before making his F1 debut in Australia. He would finish 15th as the leading ‘backmarker’ driver.
More success would follow one week later in Malaysia as Bianchi crossed the line in 13th position – the result that would ultimately gain Marussia tenth place in the constructors’ championship. It was an outstanding display that gained him widespread acclaim from the F1 world.
It can be hard for drivers to stand out when racing at the back of the grid, as few take notice of finishing 15th or 16th week in, week out. However, Bianchi was on another planet to the other drivers scrapping at the back. And the paddock was well aware of this.
Nevertheless, he remained with Marussia for 2014, a year in which he would enjoy his finest hour on the most glamorous of stages: the Monaco Grand Prix.
MAGIC AT MONACO
Bianchi had been due to start the race from 21st position, but took up the wrong grid slot as a result of Pastor Maldonado stalling ahead of the formation lap. The stewards handed him a time penalty that would be served at his next pit stop. However, he did so under the safety car, thus negating the impact of the penalty, prompting the stewards to add five seconds onto his finishing time.
Just before half distance, Bianchi was running 14th as the leading backmarker car. It looked like a normal race. However, as others hit trouble, he soon began to gain positions. Jean-Eric Vergne found himself stuck behind the Marussia driver after a drive-through penalty, but could find no way past. In spite of his huge pace disadvantage – 1.8 seconds to Vergne in Q1 – Bianchi was keeping the Toro Rosso driver back.
By the time Esteban Gutierrez had retired from the race, Bianchi was now P10 and poised to score Marussia’s first ever point in F1. Debuting in 2010 as Virgin Racing, the team had never looked capable of a top ten finish – yet Bianchi was making it possible.
However, the five second penalty was still hanging over his head. Romain Grosjean was sat just behind Bianchi, and although the Marussia driver could keep his compatriot back, there was no way he could drop him and create a gap. His herculean effort looked poised to leave him 11th and just outside of the points.
And then fate intervened. With just five laps to go, Kimi Raikkonen and Kevin Magnussen came together at the Loews hairpin when scrapping for position, causing both to drop back. Bianchi was now running eighth and within touching distance of a breakthrough result.
Come the checkered flag, most of the praise was being given to race winner Nico Rosberg, who had gone back-to-back at Monaco. However, just as Mercedes began to celebrate another victory, Marussia’s garage erupted. Five years of racing had come to this: its first points. Jules Bianchi had been demoted to ninth with his penalty, but it was still enough for two precious constructors’ points.
In the aftermath, Bianchi was humble. “It wasn’t an easy race,” he admitted. “There were some highs along the way, but a couple of concerning moments.
“What matters at the end is that we got there and can savour the highlights.”
And it was a result that was savoured by everyone in F1. Few could believe what Bianchi had achieved – it was a truly momentous moment in the 2014 season.
FERRARI’S OUTSTANDING YOUNG TALENT
Throughout this period, Ferrari had always been keeping a close eye on its great junior talent. Bianchi had completed many a test for the Italian marque, with his last coming at Silverstone in the wake of the 2014 British Grand Prix – a race for which he had qualified 12th in the Marussia. He finished the test day as the fastest driver.
The question for Bianchi was “what next?” – what would be his next step towards Maranello? A leap up to Ferrari was pondered by the paddock, particularly in light Fernando Alonso’s restlessness at the team, but Sebastian Vettel was the man anointed as the Spaniard’s successor.
But Bianchi would have been next.
Ferrari’s plan for Bianchi was clear. For 2015, he would be moved into a seat at Sauber, racing alongside Giedo van der Garde. Ferrari has good ties with the Swiss team, being its engine supplier. It would mark enough of a move forwards that Bianchi could regularly fight for points and develop.
Once Kimi Raikkonen’s contract was up at Maranello, Bianchi would then slot in as Vettel’s understudy. He would be a Ferrari driver in either 2016 or 2017.
In the lead up to the Japanese Grand Prix, Bianchi spoke about the possibility of a seat with Ferrari in the near-future, and how he felt prepared to make the step up.
“Of course I feel ready,” he said. “I have been working on that since I joined the academy in 2009.
“Now I have done nearly two seasons in Formula 1. I have good experience and feel ready for that. It looks like the logical step for me if something happens.”
These plans were torn to shreds on a rainy afternoon in Suzuka, Japan, on October 5, 2014.
It was a race that nearly didn’t happen. Under the threat of Typhoon Phanfone, officials continuously debated whether the start time should be moved. In the end, it was decided that the schedule would not change, and a break in the weather meant that although it would be a wet race, a race could take place.
After an early red flag to allow conditions to improve, the race went ahead as planned. Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton enjoyed a great fight for the lead, whilst wet-weather specialist Jenson Button really excelled in the conditions.
However, as the race entered its final stages, conditions worsened once again. Drivers began to struggle for grip, one of whom was Adrian Sutil, who went off the track at turn seven.
“The yellow flags were out,” Sutil said. “I aquaplaned on this corner as the rain got more and more, the stability got less and less.
“One lap later, with waved yellow flags, Jules came around and had the same spin there, and that was it. It was more or less the same crash, it’s just the outcome was a bit different. The car came out to rescue my car and then it all happened.”
Bianchi had been ahead of Sutil on track, giving the maximum amount of time for conditions to worsen and the track to become more and more slippery. When he came back to turn seven, the site of Sutil’s abandoned car, he lost control. The Marussia car careered into the underside of a tractor that had been recovering the Sauber at high speed, and once the severity of the incident was clear, the race was immediately stopped.
Bianchi was rushed to the local Mie General Hospital for emergency surgery. A CT scan showed that he had suffered a diffuse axonal injury, with his condition in the days after the accident being deemed “serious but stable”.
In the days and weeks that followed that dark afternoon at Suzuka, the F1 world continued to lend its support to the Bianchi family. Jules was transferred to Nice, France in November where his care continued as he remained in a coma.
His father, Philippe, made no secret of the pain and anguish that the family was facing on a daily basis.
“It’s something you can never expect,” he said back in May. “It’s not what Jules wants, being in a hospital bed. It’s not his life, it’s not what we want either. But we have to keep hope.
“Every day is difficult. The situation is stagnant. Jules’ neurological progress is not what we would like it to be.
“When we get up every morning we think of Jules’ life. We think also of his death. We have to think about death because we are in a situation where we know a lot of things can happen. It’s terrible.”
Bianchi had fought throughout entire career. He had fought against some of the very best out on track, earned the respect and admiration of his peers, and was set for a future with Ferrari where he had a real shot at becoming one of F1’s all-time greats.
Sadly though, this was a fight that he could not win.
“Jules fought right to the very end, as he always did, but today his battle came to an end,” said the Bianchi family in a statement in the early hours of Saturday morning.
“The pain we feel is immense and indescribable.”
THE LEGACY OF A LIFE CUT SHORT
Jules’ legacy will live on, though. It lives on tangibly at Marussia, which has since become Manor. The team’s financial burden proved too great towards the end of 2014, meaning that it could not race at the final three races of the year.
However, Bianchi’s two points meant that it remained ninth in the constructors’ championship and gained a huge amount of prize money in the process.
“Without him, without the two points he scored in Monaco last year, we would not be here,” team boss John Booth revealed earlier this year.
“In the end, that is what convinced the new investors of the potential of the team. Being here is our way of saying to Jules that the race is not over until the checkered flag has fallen.”
Jules was also a shining star away from the track, though. His infectious smile cheered every person he met, and he lacked the ego that is boasted by so many in the F1 paddock. He was humble, gracious, and “a magnificent human being”.
Such is clear in an interview that he conducted with NBCSN ahead of last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest, which you can see below.
Rest in peace, Jules. The motorsport world is a much poorer place without you, but all the richer for knowing you.