A shining star on and off track, Jules Bianchi’s legacy will live on

2 Comments

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.

BIANCHI’S ARRIVAL

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.

RED RAIN

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.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
0 Comments

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”