Season Preview 2012: Ferrari's Crown Jules?

By on Friday, February 17, 2012

Is Bianchi the next Ferrari driver?

He was meant to be the saviour of French motorsport. Win the GP2 title, move up to F1 and then impress the world. Yet out of the three Frenchman set to start the Australian Grand Prix, Jules Bianchi isn’t one of them. Instead, he is sat on the outside as the fourth man looking to join his fellow three Gallic musketeers. If you’d have told anyone in motorsport three seasons ago that there would be three Frenchmen but no Bianchi, they’d have been puzzled.

It was looking so promising for Bianchi after he dominated the F3 Euroseries championship, back when such a feat was meaningful, in 2009 and secured a prime seat with the crack ART squad in GP2 the following season. Much like compatriot Romain Grosjean, Bianchi’s career hasn’t quite taken the anticipated path.

The beginning of Bianchi’s GP2 career set a trend that continued throughout much of his stay in the series. On his debut, he qualified on pole but was involved in a first corner collision with team mate Sam Bird. An inconsistent season was marred by a back injury received when he spun at the start of the feature race in Hungary and was struck head on by Ho-Pin Tung. Bianchi made a recovery from a potentially serious injury, but there were no victories and no title challenge. Many expected him to take the title pre-season, but he was outclassed by Pastor Maldonado – albeit a series veteran – and he only just beat several other lesser rated runners.

There was too much of this in 2011...

In the Asia series at the start of 2011, Bianchi ran Grosjean close for the title but ultimately came up short. Nevertheless, after a year in the championship, the build-up to the season centred on the battle between the Frenchmen for the title.

Despite a first race podium, Bianchi’s form plummeted. After a terrible piece of driving at the start of the sprint race in Spain where he eliminated himself and Giedo Van der Garde, it soon became a question amongst fans of when Bianchi would crash, rather than if. He was well out of the title fight by the time he finally claimed his first – and only – series win at Silverstone, where he was involved in a titanic fight with Christian Vietoris. After his victory, he finished in the points in every race, eventually hauling himself up to third in the championship for the second successive season. It was an impressive recovery, but he will remain a footnote in GP2 history when he should have been remembered as one of its stars.

Bianchi has tested for Ferrari

While the tone so far has been rather negative, let’s not forget that Bianchi is still a very talented racing driver. GP2 is often regarded as the way to judge young drivers, but it can at times be useless. Even for all of his troubles, Bianchi still finished on the bottom step of the championship podium for two successive seasons.

Formula One inevitably beckons and Bianchi is helped enormously by having a strong agent in Nicolas Todt, the man who has somehow negotiated a contract for Felipe Massa this season. Bianchi’s career for the past few seasons has been monitored by Ferrari, after he was signed as a young driver at the end of 2009 after a successful test with the Scuderia. Bianchi has undertaken several days of testing for Ferrari since then and acted as their official test driver in 2011.

This happened in Jerez....

For 2012, he will occupy the same role for Force India after being loaned out to the Silverstone based team to gain experience. Bianchi has already received his first taste of the VJM05, although he didn’t help dispel thoughts of his erratic nature when he crashed on his third lap on Thursday. Nico Hulkenberg probably wasn’t too impressed either and went off to vent his anger on the Tennis court. Nevertheless, it is part of the learning experience and Nico himself can’t be excused from the odd mistake last season, when he ran as shotgun to Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta.

Bianchi will continue to race this season, but he makes the switch to Formula Renault 3.5 with Tech 1 Racing. The pressure will be on to win the championship, considering his experience, but the greater focus will be on his performance in a Formula One car. Times will be irrelevant in first practice sessions, but how he engages with the team and helps them to improve – as well as keeping it out of the barriers – will be key.

A strong FR3.5 season, combined with a positive testing program as well as (another) disappointing season for Felipe Massa will see Bianchi join a potentially long list of candidates to join Fernando Alonso at Ferrari. There’s no doubt that Bianchi is a talented young racing driver, but 2012 will be a big year for a man who has been tipped as a future world champion.

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