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Bianchi was on track for Ferrari seat, says company's former President

The 25-year-old died in hospital on Saturday, 9 months after sustaining severe brain injuries at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. His funeral will be held today.

Bianchi (L) with close friend Fernando Alonso of Ferrari

Luca di Montezemolo was the head of Italian auto company Ferrari’s iconic racing team, Scuderia Ferrari. He said in an interview to Sky Italia yesterday that the team had decided to replace Kimi Raikkonen with Bianchi once the Finn’s contract was up. 

Bianchi died on Saturday as a result of injuries sustained in a crash at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka last year. Driving in torrential rain and treacherous weather conditions, Bianchi had collided with a stationary crane clearing the wreckage of Adrian Sutil’s Sauber. The young Frenchman had suffered severe brain injury at the time and had been in a coma since. He was 25. His passing marks the first Formula One crash-related death in 21 years, the last being three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna, who is regarded as the greatest of all time.

"He was the driver we had chosen for the future, once the collaboration with Kimi Raikkonen had finished,” Montezemolo told Sky Sports Italia. Raikkonen has been having repeated trouble with management and crew at the Prancing Horse and is said to not see eye-to-eye with the team strategy. He is famously strong-headed and is said to feel as though directions from the team are stifling him.

He is not the only driver on the circuit to feel this way, however. Fernando Alonso, who was Raikkonen’s partner at Ferrari before he moved to McLaren-Honda this year, will agree completely with his former teammate. Snippets of team radio conversation show just how dissatisfied and controlled the Spaniard feels by the team’s strategy. McLaren have had a shoddy year so far, with most races of the season ending in retirement for either one or both drivers. Alonso’s first points of the season came at the recently concluded British Grand Prix.

Scuderia Ferrari have bought Raikkonen's compatriot Valtteri Bottas, who currently drives for Williams alongside Brazilian driver Felipe Massa, in a deal rumoured to be worth $13mn. Bianchi was part of the Ferrari Drivers’ Academy, the team’s initiative to discover and hone young talent in the world of motorsports for its own team's talent pool. He had been its first recruit in 2009. 

The Frenchman had previously been involved with Ferrari in the role of a test driver, a role he also performed at Sahara Force India. He moved to Marussia as a principal driver the following year, in 2013, and remained with them until his accident. 

Montezemolo, who was the outgoing president of Scuderia Ferrari at the time of Bianchi’s accident, had said even then he intended for the French driver to be at Ferrari following the 2015 season. There had been fervent speculation at the time that races would be run by three-car teams, and Montezemolo said that in the event this was true, Bianchi would be the third Ferrari driver alongside Kimi Raikkonen and Spaniard Fernando Alonso, now partnering Jenson Button at McLaren-Honda.  

The three-car system was not implemented, however, and Alonso’s seat was filled by four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel instead. Alonso, who was said to be one of Bianchi’s mentors, was close to the young driver, and posted a tweet in Spanish in remembrance of Bianchi yesterday – 

The Bianchi family announced to the press and on Twitter yesterday that the funeral and remembrance services for young Bianchi would be held in his hometown of Nice, France, where he passed away in hospital. 

Several F1 drivers are due to be in attendance before this weekend’s Grand Prix at the Hungaroring in Hungary. Among them is Bianchi’s compatriot Romain Grosjean of Lotus, who will attend with teammate Pastor Maldonado. Both Maldonado and Bianchi were managed by Nicolas Todt, son of FIA President Jean, and Maldonado was one of the first people at Bianchi’s bedside following the accident at Suzuka. 

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