Formula One lost one of its young, promising talents in 2015. After a 21-year period that saw no deaths in the sport, the young Frenchman suffered a long drawn out death
1994: Tragedy strikes Formula One
Back to 1994. The San Marino Grand Prix. Italy’s 2nd race after Monza.
Not as much of a high-speed track as the one at Monza, the circuit at Imola was not regarded as dangerous, although it saw several crashes in its time, most notably at the high-speed Tamburello corner much before 1994.
1987 saw Ayrton Senna’s then-teammate, Nelson Piquet, involved in an almighty crash at the corner, and longtime F1 doctor Sid Watkins then declared him unfit to race, which saw Senna also choose not to.
The track became notorious for playing host to several fuel-starved races from its introduction to the calendar, with Senna and later teammate Alain Prost dominating the track, and in 1989, at the height of their rivalry, Austria’s Gerhard Berger was involved in a high-speed crash at Tamburello that saw his car engulfed in flames.
Although the fire was put out immediately and Berger would only suffer minor burns in the incident, it brought about no changes to the security at the track. Over the years, several drivers spun out at that very corner, but it remained a thick concrete barrier rather than a cushioned one.
All this would culminate in 1994, when the track would see two deaths in two days, with injuries to other drivers even before the double deaths.
Rubens Barichello, then with Jordan, careened into the barriers in a high-impact crash at Variante Bassa that saw him suffer a severe concussion. Obviously, tyre barriers all around the track were seriously lacking, as every one of the injuries drivers had suffered at the track so far till then likely suggested.
At qualifying the following day, Simtek’s Roland Ratzenberger crashed at the track’s Villeneuve corner, again with no barriers to cushion the impact of his high-speed collision, suffered a skull fracture that would kill him instantly.
Twenty-four hours later, the racing world lost its star and by then 3-time World Champion Ayrton Senna who, like so many others before him, crashed at high impact into the wall at Tamburello, and would die in hospital a few hours after his accident, his steering column coming detached from the car and piercing his helmet.
It was only then that major safety changes to Formula One were effected; barriers were included, cars were made of stronger carbon fibre, and regulations became tighter in general.
And those changes were effective, up until last year.
Despite heavy rain in the wake of Typhoon Phanfone, organisers did not call off the race, although they had called off qualifying the day before. Sauber driver Adrian Sutil was the first to crash, although he escaped unscathed. Several drivers aquaplaned, among them Williams’ Felipe Massa, who had even complained about the situation prior to the crash.
Bianchi, whose control was seriously hampered by the rain, veered off track and collided with the tractor crane that had been clearing the wreckage of Sutil’s car; he was immediately knocked unconscious, and spent 9 months in a coma, at the end of which he passed away this year at 25.
A young start
As a child, Bianchi absolutely idolised 7-time World Champion Michael Schumacher. Growing up with a race-car driving great-uncle and a father who owned a karting track, it was an absolutely natural choice for Bianchi to pursue motorsport.
Lucien Bianchi, the brother of Jules’ grandfather, competed in Formula One himself, for nearly a decade – much before Bianchi was born. Among the teams Lucien raced for were Cooper, Scuderia Centro Sud and Reg Parnell. Sadly, Bianchi senior would pass away over a decade before Jules was born, also losing his life in a crash.
The younger Bianchi may have been born to a family that breathed motorsport, but his own talent was undeniable. He impressed immediately in karting, and moved in 2007 to Formula 2.0, winning the championship in his debut year, and at the end of which he immediately signed on to compete in the Formula 3 Euro Series.
Taking the title at the Masters of Formula 3 the next year, he carried his immense success into 2009, when he won the championship before the season had ended.
The young man drove alongside his senior compatriot Romain Grosjean in GP2 before a move to Formula Renault 3.5.
Formula One finds Bianchi
Bianchi had driven alongside another eventual Ferrari spottee – Esteban Gutierrez – in GP2, and the iconic Scuderia had, it appears, been following his career. 2009 had seen Felipe Massa, then driving with Ferrari, seriously injured at the Hungaroring. The Brazilian had suffered a skull fracture after a spring came loose from the car of Brawn GP’s Rubens Barichello, penetrating Massa’s visor and injuring him dangerously close to his cornea.
The then 19-year-old Bianchi had widely been expected to replace Massa’s teammate Luca Badoer. He was in fact called up to the team by then-president Luca di Montezemolo, and performed so well in testing that he became the first ever recruit of the Ferrari Drivers’ Academy, which hones talent from within the team. It’s since seen Force India podium-winner Sergio Perez also graduate.
Then with Sauber, Perez tested alongside Bianchi, who in a funny twist of fate was loaned to Force India for the remainder of the year.
But he had already made an impression, and the following year would get a call up to a full-time Formula One team with Marussia F1, with and for whom Bianchi would score his first ever championship points in F1.
He performed well enough for the team to retain him the following year, and he spent a significant part of 2014 establishing himself as the team’s first driver alongside Briton Max Chilton.
Before fate intervened, 2015 had heralded exciting things for the young Frenchman, who was being considered for a return to the Scuderia after the imminent departure of 2-time World Champion Fernando Alonso, who would be returning to his former team McLaren.
It was then that tragedy struck, and Bianchi all but lost his life on that fateful day in Suzuka, Japan.
A Scuderia Ferrari future and Bianchi’s legacy
Then-Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo, in the immediate aftermath of Bianchi’s accident, admitted that the team had decided Bianchi would be the Scuderia’s third driver, in a time when several had speculated that the championship would see three-car teams from 2015, a change that did not materialise.
Team Marussia folded that season too, with investors pulling out primarily due to Bianchi’s accident.
The tragedy resulted, however, in Formula One implementing several big changes that would be immensely beneficial to drivers and the sport. The Virtual Safety Car was introduced in the 2015 season, and it now signals a period of restricted speed in the race without necessitating the actual safety car to come out onto the track.
Bianchi had several tributes to him this year, with several drivers dedicating race wins to the youngster.
But perhaps the biggest win for the Bianchi family will have been the fact that the FIA and the sport introduced new rules that would make the sport safer, the best way to honour the memory of a young driver who had much to give and achieve.