April 30th, 2013 (F1plus/P. Godley).- Two young Frenchman with heaps of potential, an increasing number of admirers and now that the first four races of the season have been and gone; a new level of expectancy to perform at the highest level.
Jules Bianchi, the much discussed new-boy of the Formula 1 paddock, has impressed hugely in his first four starts as a Grand Prix driver in a Marussia team that has taken significant strides forward from last season. Charles Pic, the baby-faced deep thinking enigma, has quietly been building his own reputation after an encouraging year at Marussia in 2012. As is the norm in all sport, not just Formula 1, much of the focus goes on those at the sharp end; those winning the races and being crowned Champions. This piece will focus on the equally exciting rear of the field where, as may be the case with both the aforementioned men, the future of the sport could lie.
Charles Pic had a string of impressive results in the second half of 2012, particularly in relation to his then team mate Timo Glock on board of an improving Marussia car. Timo is a widely respected and highly regarded driver, and a podium finisher in Formula 1 on more than one occasion. But over the latter stages of 2012 Charles was every bit the match for his German counterpart; out-qualifying and out-racing him several times. It appeared that certain sections of the F1 brigade had failed to spot, or at least report on, his upsurge in form over the second half of 2012 until his move to Caterham for this season was announced.
On a personal level I was delighted to see Charles remain in Formula 1, but had hoped it would be at Marussia. After the first three races of this season, my earlier fears appeared to be coming true. Marussia have taken some giant leaps forward with their car this season; something that appeared to catch Caterham by surprise. Despite claiming 10th place in the Constructors Championship last season, the team can't have been pleased with how relatively little forwards progression was made. The signs were there at the end of last year that Marussia were coming, and coming quickly. Pre-season testing is often hard to take anything from, but the suspicions that the Marussia was indeed a faster package than the Caterham became apparent at the opening few rounds of the season.
In the hands of Bianchi at least, the Marussia was closer to the midfield pack than we'd ever seen it before. Caterham on the other hand looked arguably further away from the likes of Toro Rosso and Williams than even last season. Yet this past weekend in Bahrain we saw a whole new level of performance from Caterham and a brilliant drive from Pic. The new parts the team brought to his car this weekend appeared to give them over half a second a lap improvement on the previous weekend in China; something that Pic took full advantage. He finished just behind the Toro Rosso Daniel Ricciardo and ahead of the Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez and the two Marussia's.
He qualified almost 1 second ahead of Bianchi in the Marussia and finished comfortably ahead of his fellow Frenchman in the race. As much as Caterham would love to score a Championship point; their first and most important aim has to be to ensure that this performance wasn't a one-off. Marussia admitted themselves that the Sakhir circuit doesn't suit their car as well as other tracks, but that should take nothing away from the performance of Caterham and Pic over the three days.
You'll have noticed that even when I'm talking about Charles Pic, the name of Jules Bianchi appears just as frequently. I'm not sure there's been as much buzz around a rookie in the sport for several years, with everyone having their say on his performances. Even after four races - no, even after one race - people the world over were tipping him for greatness. I said this to someone the other day and I'll say it again now; there's something of an Alonso at Minardi-esc feel to Jules' arrival into Formula 1. You could say that Australia probably highlighted this the most, but he's doing things with that car that many had not thought possible at such an early stage in the season, let alone this early in his career.
There's an aura surrounding him. A whirlwind of potential, expectation and admiration has been whipped up in such a short space of time. Of course, Jules is not a 'rookie' in the sense that he's been around Formula 1 for a couple of years and has gathered some significant experience in Young Driver tests and Friday practice sessions. A race seat is something completely different. It's not just one session, it's a whole weekend. Actually no, it's a whole year. The procedures, the pressure, the requirements, the fitness, the media. It's all completely different. A whole new level. A whole new world.
But by 'eck how well has he done to adjust to it all? Before the season I raised the point that Bianchi could be key to Marussia's success this season. You can see why he's so highly rated and why so many think he's at the start of what could be a long and successful career at the pinnacle of single-seater racing.
Of course, lest we not forget that there has only been four races. We're all very good at getting ahead of ourselves; pre-empting what might be and come. But there's something about Bianchi, something that stands out and sets him apart from many other recent rookies. He comes across well on camera, says the right things and is fondly talked about at and away from the paddock. More importantly though, he's displayed his skills on track. In just four races he's shown what he's capable of; and it has to leave you asking yourself what can he go on to do in, not just the remainder of this season, but down the line too?
I've talked about Pic and Bianchi (largely) separately up to this point, but what could we see from the pair together out on track? Marussia vs Caterham could well be a great battle to watch over the course of the year, but the battle between the two Frenchman could develop into one of the season's must sees. It may not get the television coverage that those at the front will, but make sure you keep at least one eye on the positions, gaps and lap times between these two as the season progresses.
Just two years ago we had no French Formula 1 drivers. In 2013 we have four. Four drivers with potentially futures. Four drivers that need a strong season. You could be forgiven for thinking that because Pic and Bianchi drive for teams at the rear of the field that there's less pressure, less demands to succeed and consistently perform. But as we've seen in recent years, Formula 1 is ruthless. It doesn't matter where you are on the grid; if you don't perform, you're out. Can these two young men be the springboard for a French revolution in Formula 1? Could they be the spark that ignites a return of the French Grand Prix somewhere in the future?