Death in racing is always a hard thing to swallow, no matter the driver or individual involved, no matter the age.
Yet it’s when drivers are taken before they have the opportunity to reach the zenith of their potential that the hurt cuts deeper.
Jules Bianchi, who was 25, is now one of those drivers.
Admittedly, Bianchi’s crash last year at Suzuka always had a severity and magnitude that would forever alter his career trajectory.
If he survived, he’d need a miracle. If granted that miracle, he’d need another miracle to race again. If he’d secured two miracles, he’d need another chance to advance from Marussia into Ferrari, where he was always destined to drive.
It never happened. It never had a chance of happening.
What has followed the last nine months has been almost as excruciating, if not more so, than the immediate impact itself.
But while the last nine months have still provided a glimmer of hope, however scant or remote, the late news Friday confirms the fact that Bianchi will never have that chance to show the world his greatness once more.
With young drivers, often all you have to judge them on is potential, a word I consider one of the most dangerous in the English language.
When you’re branded with “potential,” it means you have talent – God-given or otherwise acquired as you develop – and it’s up to you to fully exploit it. You do so by how you fare in your opportunities and how you work with the people around you to maximize your result in whatever discipline you’re in.
In racing, that’s a word often bestowed on young drivers, sometimes with merit, sometimes with hope.
Jules Bianchi had potential. He had metric tons of it.
The kid was destined for Ferrari for the better part of five years, if not longer, and his performances in merely his first year and a half on the F1 grid showcased what was going to be the start of an impressive career.
It was the 2013 equivalent of Alonso at Minardi or Senna at Toleman. A Marussia-Cosworth had no business being where it was those first few Grands Prix.
Yet Bianchi emerged as a superstar after he’d been drafted into the seat only at the last minute, carrying a steely resolve from the off after being passed over at Force India for Adrian Sutil and then taking over at Marussia once Luiz Razia’s sponsor backed out.
He’d starred in the junior categories as well, which vaulted him into his potential superstardom.
This was all before Monaco, of course, and now that most famous ninth place finish.
But there are names now that Bianchi will forever be compared with: those gone too talented, gone way too soon.
In my lifetime, it’s Greg Moore and Sean Edwards – like Bianchi, two fairly shy, humble, down-to-earth, yet beautiful personalities outside the cockpit who once their helmets went on, unleashed their inner beasts.
Moore was only 24. He, like Bianchi, was all but destined for the top team – he’d signed with Team Penske to join the team for its rebranded, relaunched and recalibrated 2000 CART season along with Gil de Ferran. He’d not had the best equipment in his four years in CART but he often made the most of it, starring on ovals but frequently slowed by mechanical woes.
His death was sudden, and abrupt. He lost control off Turn 2 at what was then-California Speedway before his car hit the grass, went over backwards and into the wall – cockpit-side first – in one of the most horrific accidents I’ve ever witnessed.
Moore’s successor, Helio Castroneves, has been with Team Penske ever since. He’s won three Indianapolis 500s, won 29 races and come second in the championship four times over an illustrious 16-year period of his own.
Edwards, who was 26, was destined for sports car superstardom. Just type in “Sean Edwards Nurburgring” on YouTube. Do it right now. Or wait ‘til you’ve finished reading. But either way, do it soon.
Heroics at the “Green Hell” were merely a fraction of Edwards’ arsenal and he would have all but certainly joined the ranks of Porsche factory drivers, if another manufacturer didn’t swoop him up first. Who knows if he, and not new recruits Nick Tandy and/or Earl Bamber, might have got the nod for an LMP1 ride at Le Mans this year?
We’ll never know, sadly, after an abnormal type of crash where he was killed in the passenger’s seat in a training accident in Australia. Not that it helps ease the pain any, but Edwards’ death was a catalyst for the Motorsport Safety Foundation – which is doing great work to make racing safer – to hit its next level. The Sean Edwards Foundation has been active in improvements, as well.
There are countless others, of course. NASCAR rising stars Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr. were cruelly lost within months of each other at the same track in 2000. Jason Leffler starred on short tracks, but never had the right timing in NASCAR or open-wheel on big ones. Tony Renna had the best chance to succeed in open-wheel when he’d signed with Chip Ganassi Racing. Allan Simonsen showcased his ability in sports cars, most notably at Bathurst. Jeff Krosnoff was in a first-year engine program when he finally got his CART shot. Gonzalo Rodriguez raced and beat Juan Pablo Montoya in F3000 and impressed in limited CART races with Team Penske before his accident.
From an F1 perspective, we’re perhaps fortunate we don’t have recent examples – Bianchi is the first driver to die in a race meeting since Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the nightmare weekend that was the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
But drivers like Stefan Bellof, Tony Brise, Roger Williamson, Tom Pryce and Francois Cevert – the latter of whom had won Grands Prix but not yet a World Championship – are among those where the talent was there, and the future was there, before all lost their battles.
Bianchi’s battle ends on the day when his all-but-destined future seat looks set to be filled by someone else. And it’s not that Valtteri Bottas isn’t deserving – he is – if and when he is officially confirmed by the Scuderia.
Yet the pain here for race insiders, observers and fans is that we’ll never know what Jules Bianchi could have fully achieved on the track.