Season review: Future star Bianchi makes his mark

By on Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Bianchi Monza

Marussia F1 Team

Jules Bianchi didn't have a seat as February turned into March. By the end of the month, he had impressed the Formula 1 community and he continued to build on his promise throughout the rest of the year.

Prior to the start of the 2013 Formula 1 season, Max Chilton was in the unusual position of having had three team-mates even before flying out to the first round in Australia. Marussia veteran Timo Glock agreed to depart in order for the team to improve their financial situation and he was replaced by GP2 runner-up Luiz Razia. The Brazilian’s non-participation in the second of the three pre-season tests raised doubts over the validity of his sponsorship and the partnership duly ended mere weeks after it began.

Jules Bianchi, meanwhile, was facing the prospect of a middling season. The Frenchman, part of Ferrari’s young driver academy, had spent 2012 racing in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series and finished as runner-up to Robin Frijns, albeit in controversial circumstances. Bianchi’s pace had been prevalent throughout his junior career but a couple of tricky seasons in GP2 had done little to grab the attention of Formula 1 team bosses. Alongside his FR3.5 commitments, Bianchi tested for Force India and participated in nine Friday practice sessions; Nico Hülkenberg’s defection to Sauber from Force India opened up a position at the team but they opted to recruit former driver Adrian Sutil.

By the end of that same week at the Circuit de Catalunya, Bianchi’s management team had secured the Frenchman a berth in Formula 1 as he became the final piece of the jigsaw with Marussia. Prior to the Australian Grand Prix, Bianchi undertook just two days of running with his new squad but in Melbourne he proved to be something of a revelation.

Marussia F1 Team

Marussia F1 Team

He out-qualified Chilton by seven tenths of a second in tricky conditions and went on to finish the race in 15th, was lapped just once and hung on to the Williams of Valtteri Bottas. A week later in Malaysia, the gap to Chilton in qualifying grew to 1.2s as Bianchi came within a couple of tenths of the midfield, despite the session being his first attempt at flat out, balls to the wall effort. It was one of the qualifying laps of the season from any driver, with his race engineer Paul Davison telling Autosport that it was the finest lap any Virgin/Marussia driver had done since the team’s creation in 2010. Bianchi continued to trounce Chilton in qualifying – with the gap occasionally over a second – and he also progressed through to Q2 with an inspired tyre choice in tricky conditions at Spa. While Bianchi grabbed the attention early doors, there was an erroneous consensus that his form waned after such starring drives. In India, Bianchi’s Q1 lap was just a tenth shy of Pastor Maldonado and a comfortable 1.1s faster than Chilton. He ended the season 17-2 up on his team-mate on Saturdays and in the races it was a similar scenario, with Chilton finishing ahead of Bianchi just twice. The Frenchman also earned Marussia the prized 10th place in the constructors’ championship courtesy of 13th in Malaysia. On nine occasions, Bianchi managed to beat one (sometimes both) of the Caterham drivers.

"The qualifying high-point was in India," he said. "The races, I have a few of them that I am very pleased about. Of course Malaysia, where we finished in P13 and since when we’ve been sitting ahead of Caterham in the standings, but I can add Canada and Silverstone to that list. India was pretty good as well, even though I had an issue while pitting. The lows were Singapore and Monza. At these two places I wasn’t really feeling confident with the car so I was struggling a bit more."

Marussia F1 Team

Marussia F1 Team

Team-mate Chilton took the plaudits for finishing every race, but Bianchi was also similarly efficient. The record books show that Bianchi retired from three races in 2013, but there were mitigating factors: his brakes gave up in Monaco, the car caught fire in Germany and he was used as a braking aid by Giedo van der Garde in Japan. The latter race was the only occasion in 2013 when Bianchi was truly outclassed by Chilton, as an early practice shunt put Bianchi firmly on the back foot. But it wasn’t a case of a rookie’s exuberance overtaking talent. "The Suzuka accident was really strange - and frustrating. I could not do anything as my arm was stuck and I was reduced to passenger," he said.

Frequently, it’s difficult to gain attention when racing at the back, but Bianchi’s season has evoked comparisons with that of Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, who raced for perennial backmarkers Minardi in 2001 and 2002 respectively. The midfield remained firmly out of reach for Marussia, while the 2013-spec formula meant that there were no opportunity for heroics (a la Webber in Melbourne, 2002) but Bianchi has done more than enough to remain in the sport next season. There will be difficult moments ahead, plus his wheel-to-wheel racing in Formula 1 has not yet been properly tested – an aspect that regularly dogged him in GP2. But at Marussia, Bianchi is thriving and will be ready if and when the phone call from Ferrari arrives. For now, Bianchi remains with the Banbury-based team into Formula 1’s new era next season.

"F1 is a tough business, the pressure is mountain-high, even if you are at the back of the grid," he says.

"But it is worth every bit of pressure and I want more of it - many, many more years of it. There is not really a ‘career plan’ of where I want to be at the end of 2014 and beyond. I take it step by step and try to do my best at every race - no matter the date - and then let’s see what happens in the future."

"Marussia is doing pretty well and punching above its weight - and next year with the Ferrari engine we should do even better. Everybody will start from zero again and that should be a huge chance for us and for me to stay here and have continuity."


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