April 10th, 2013 (F1plus/B. Dixon).- From the moment he stepped foot into his first kart at the age of three, it was evident that Jules Bianchi and racing would be a harmonious union. In the words of his father, “he was born in a kart.” His descent from a racing line of drivers, bought an inevitability that he would have racing blood coursing through his veins ensuring a natural proficiency at hustling his car around a track. Starting with his Grandfather Mauro, who was a triple winner of the world title in the GT category, the line continued onto his Great Uncle Lucien who brought his Ferrari home to win the twelve hours of Sepang in 1962 and guided his Ford to victory at Le Mans in 1968. Lucien Bianchi also entered nineteen Formula One races, one of which saw him grace the third step of the podium in Monaco in 1968. So far he seems to be continuing their racing line, tracing their winning ways.
In his first year of competition out of the junior category, Bianchi became the Asia – Pacific champion in 2005 and followed this up neatly by becoming the French Formula A karting champion a year later. Achieving five pole positions, five wins, eleven podiums and ten fastest laps out of a mere thirteen races, made him a spectacular winner of the National Formula Renault title in 2007. He continued his winning form into the 2008 season when two wins and seven podium appearances helped secure third place, followed by victory in the Masters category at Zolder. Driving for Nicholas Todt’s ART Grand Prix team in the 2009 Formula Euro season, Jules took the championship with six pole positions, nine wins, seven fastest laps and twelve podiums.
His impressive form spanning five seasons added to his growing reputation as a naturally gifted driver. Mix speed over a single lap with consistency throughout a race and season, top it off with the ability to take the win when not starting from pole, and you have the recipe for a well-rounded, sagacious driver. His introduction to official members of the Ferrari team in the Spa pit lane came as no surprise and at just twenty years old he became the first young driver to sign for the fledgling Ferrari Young Drivers Programme.
The nurturing the Maranello team gave to Felipe Massa through the early part of his career, including a spell on loan to Sauber for three seasons to prepare him for a Ferrari seat, was the inspiration behind the young driver academy. Jules Bianchi’s contract with the Scuderia was christened on his inaugural drive of the Prancing horse at a young drivers test at Jerez in 2009. Under the watchful eye of Ferrari test driver, Andrea Bertolini, and reaping the benefit of his invaluable advice, Jules drove for 91 laps finishing the morning session third fastest just behind current Toro Rosso driver Daniel Ricciardo.
Jules Bianchi as a Ferrari "academy" driver and as a Force India seat hunter in Winter 2013.
Speaking just prior to the test, in response to a question about where he saw himself a year on, Bianchi said, “ I hope to finish in the top three in GP2 and to have shown my talent so that I can move up still further. If things don’t go that well, then it would be further motivation to do well the following year. One thing’s for sure I’m not the sort to let adversity get me down.” This attitude is deeply admirable, and the ability to use mistakes and difficulties as positive learning opportunities will almost certainly have added to the long list of exceptional qualities he possesses, and successes he has already amassed.
2010 saw the fruitful partnership between Jules Bianchi and ART Grand Prix continue into GP2 where they came third after achieving three pole positions and four podiums. Rumours about the Frenchman hijacking the Ferrari test driver role from Giancarlo Fisichello became rife prior to the season, but the rumours were unfounded, with the role put on hold until 2011; a season in which he also drove for Lotus Art in GP2.
Despite the 2011 challenge not being the most successful one of his career, Ferrari continued to show their belief in the masterly sparkle Bianchi delivered on track, by advocating him for the role of reserve driver at Force India for the 2012 season. Following the path previously treaded by Nico Hulkenberg, Bianchi drove on nine Friday practice sessions for the team, and when a race seat became available for 2013 it was widely assumed he would be promoted, as the German had previously. Speculations continued throughout the winter, until the first Barcelona test, when Force India used the track time to not only test their car, but also to test the skills of Bianchi and Adrian Sutil.
The German was chosen to return to the team after being absent for a year, and has since proved himself worthy of the choice. Subsequent confirmation that Force India will extend their collaboration with Mercedes regarding engines for the new turbo era in 2014, may have been a deciding factor in their decision. Team boss Vijay Mallya stated, “I can’t think of a better partner to work with as F1 enters a new and exciting era.” The strong links Bianchi has with Ferrari could have been seen as a barrier to this partnership.
A team who didn’t consider a Ferrari connection to be an obstacle were Marussia, who in danger of heading into 2013 without a second driver due to the collapse of their deal with Brazilian Luiz Razia, pounced on the chance to ink a deal with the Frenchman. In a cyclonic start to the season, Bianchi was fitted with a race seat within hours of the ink being dry, led the MR02 round the Circuit de Catalunya for the final two days of testing and completed laps in the simulator before being unleashed at the opening race of the season in Australia two weeks later.
Qualifying nineteenth in Melbourne, Bianchi made up four places and finished fifteenth in his maiden Grand Prix with a fastest lap only 1.2 seconds off that set by winner Kimi Raikkonen. With the aim for Marussia prior to the race being to overcome the Caterhams, Bianchi showed his promise by not only winning this battle, but by demonstrating he can challenge the likes of the Williams and Toro Rosso. His form continued into Malaysia where he took Sepang by storm, qualifying nineteenth and finishing thirteenth. Again he left the Caterhams for dust and took the fight to the lower midfield. Considering that he hadn’t been afforded the luxury of lots of time on track, or off, to gain a full understanding of the MR02, it has been a truly impressive start.
Max Chilton, the other rookie in the team, must feel as though he a driving alongside an experienced team mate. Although benefiting from more track time in a Formula One car as a result of his test driver roles, Bianchi is still a rookie in terms of qualifying and races and has shown the world, and Max, just what can be achieved by unfledged practitioner. Spurred on by his performance in the first two races of the season, Bianchi is keen to maintain the impetus gained by both the team, and him so far, and as they arrive in Shanghai with some new developments, is positive about their chances of closing the gap to those in front.
With the Ferrari Academy being a concept initiated as a result of Felipe Massa’s development within the team, it is ironic that he is now precariously in danger of being toppled in favour of the first young driver signed to that programme. Jules Bianchi has shown that the idea of a race seat at the Maranello team is never far from his mind, “It is something we have in mind because I already have a contract with them in the academy, so we want for sure to do something in the future.” This young Frenchman has raced with luminosity difficult for any to miss, and coupled with an intelligent and perceptive attitude has shown that it might just be time to make way for a new crop of dynamic, scarlet veined talent.