LONDON (Reuters) - Jules Bianchi was the coming man, a young French racer of Italian extraction with plenty of talent and every hope of one day joining the elite ranks of Ferrari Formula One drivers.
The 25-year-old, who has died of injuries sustained at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, emerged from the Ferrari academy with a glowing reputation and was a test driver for the Maranello glamour team before joining Ferrari-powered Marussia.
Popular in the paddock, playing football with the other drivers and part of the Ferrari ‘family’, Bianchi’s dreams were far from wild.
“Of course I feel ready. I have been working on that since I joined the academy in 2009,” Bianchi had told reporters before the Japanese Grand Prix, when speculation was still swirling about the Ferrari line-up for 2015.
“Now I have done nearly two seasons in F1. I have good experience and feel ready for that. It looks like the logical step for me if something happens.”
He had joined Marussia through a stroke of fate, with the team suddenly in need of a driver after terminating the contract of Brazilian Luiz Razia three weeks before the start of the 2013 season due to financial reasons.
Bianchi had hoped for a race seat at Force India, where he had spent 2012 as reserve, but had missed out to Germany’s Adrian Sutil a week earlier.
Nicolas Todt, the manager who had guided Bianchi’s career since the driver was 15 years old and who is also the son of FIA president and former Ferrari team boss Jean, seized the opportunity.
At Marussia, a struggling team who entered the sport as Virgin Racing in 2010, Bianchi quickly established himself as someone who could get the most out of a tail-end car.
A firm friend of Ferrari’s regular race driver and double world champion Fernando Alonso, the Frenchman hauled the Marussia to unexpected heights in Monaco last year when he finished eighth but was demoted to ninth.
The two points were still Marussia’s first and lifted them to ninth overall, a place that was worth tens of millions of dollars to the British-based team.
“He’s a friend and I’m extremely happy for him and very proud of what his result will mean for him in his career,” Alonso said at the time.
“Hopefully with this result he can have a more competitive car next year and show his talent even more.”
The world will never know how much he might have gone on to achieve but Bianchi’s family were always acutely aware of the risks involved.
They had been scarred by motor racing tragedy even before the catastrophic accident at a rainsoaked Suzuka that left Bianchi with severe brain injuries after his car skidded off and crashed into a recovery tractor.
In 1969, the Marussia driver’s great-uncle Lucien — who also raced in Formula One — was killed at Le Mans in practice for the 24 Hours sportscar race.
Lucien, who had finished third for Cooper BRM at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1968 when he shared the podium with double champion Graham Hill, lost control of his Alfa Romeo and hit a telegraph pole.
The Belgian licensed racer had won Le Mans the previous year with Mexican Pedro Rodriguez, a two times grand prix winner who was to die two years later while racing a Ferrari sportscar at Germany’s Norisring circuit.
Mauro Bianchi, Jules’s grandfather, who was born in Milan but raced with a Belgian licence after his mechanic father moved there, also suffered severe burns in a fiery crash at the 1968 Le Mans race.
Philippe Bianchi, Mauro’s son and Jules’ father, did not race himself but ran a kart track among his other interests.
“For me, it was too complicated because the family did not want to suffer more tragedy,” he told the French Corse Matin newspaper last year. “Throughout my childhood and adolescence, motorsport was a taboo subject at home.”
Nice-born Jules Bianchi, like any other racer, had his share of accidents in a career that started in go-karts at the age of three years old when he showed immediate talent.
In 2009, while competing in the Euro F3 championship that he went on to win, Jules Bianchi crashed heavily at Brands Hatch in England. “It’s normal, it’s racing,” he said afterwards.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Nick Mulvenney