The French racing driver Jules Bianchi died from the serious head injuries he sustained in the Japanese Grand Prix last October when he crashed his Marussia car into a safety vehicle. The 25 year-old from Nice had been in a coma since and became the first man to die as a result of injuries sustained in a Formula 1 race since Ayrton Senna at Imola in May 1994.
Following a period of treatment in the General Medical Centre in the Mie Prefecture close to the Suzuka circuit, Bianchi succumbed to the ongoing effects of a diffuse axonal injury at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire in Nice, where he was admitted following his repatriation from Japan.
“Jules fought right to the very end, as he always did, but today his battle came to an end,” a statement from the Bianchi family said. “The pain we feel is immense and indescribable.” Sadly, the family understood more than most the darkness that lurks at the bright edges of the sport.
Bianchi’s great-grandfather had been a mechanic with Alfa Romeo’s race team in the 1930s, and his sons Lucien and Mauro, having moved with the family from Italy to Belgium, competed with distinction. But Philippe Bianchi had seen his father, Mauro, suffer grievous burns in an accident in an Alpine-Renault at Le Mans in 1968, a race in which Lucien partnered Pedro Rodriguez to victory in a Gulf Automotive Ford GT40. That year Lucien had also raced a Cooper-BRM on his return to Formula 1, with best finishes of third in the Monaco GP and sixth in Belgium. A year later, however, he was killed at the Le Mans test day in April when his Alfa Romeo suffered mechanical failure on the Mulsanne Straight and crashed into a telegraph pole.
Philippe was discouraged from competing himself by his family, but he ran a kart track at Antibes, and it was there that his son Jules developed his own passion for the sport. After a successful career in karting Jules switched to cars in 2007 and won the French Formula Renault with five victories. With ART GP in 2008 he won the prestigious Masters of Formula 3 race at Zolder and finished third in the Formula 3 Euro Series.
The following year he won the European title with nine wins against opposition that included future F1 racers Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez, and moved into GP2 with ART for 2010. He immediately proved fastest, if occasionally reckless. He was signed as a development driver for Ferrari in 2011, while continuing to race in GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5, before finally graduating to an F1 race seat with Marussia in 2013.
His performances with the little team from Banbury climaxed with a feisty drive to eighth place on the road in the 2014 Monaco GP. He was subsequently given time penalties for discrepancies in his starting position, but the two points he secured for an eventual ninth place gave the team their sole score to date and, crucially, threw them the lifeline they needed to survive financial exigencies and to continue under new ownership in 2015.
During the Japanese GP he lost control in the wet during a yellow flag period and crashed heavily into a crane that was attempting to remove Adrian Sutil’s abandoned Sauber. A statement issued by Manor Marussia said: “Words cannot describe the enormous sadness within our team this morning, as we come to terms with losing Jules. He has left an indelible mark on all our lives, and will forever be part of everything we have achieved, and everything we will strive for going forward.
“Jules was a shining talent. He was destined for great things in our sport; success he so richly deserved. He was also a magnificent human being, making a lasting impression on countless people all over the world. They recognised, as did we, that at the same time as being a fiercely motivated racer, he was also an extremely warm, humble and intensely likeable person, who lit up our garage and our lives.
“We are incredibly grateful that we were able to provide Jules with the opportunity to show the world what he could do in a Formula 1 car. We knew we had a very special driver on our hands from the first time he drove our car in pre-season testing in 2013. It has been an honour to be able to consider him our race driver, our team-mate, and of course our friend.” Those team-mates race on, intent on honouring his legacy with success.
United by the mutual sense of loss after a universal campaign of support under the aegis of “Forza Jules”, figures from the world of motorsport paid their tributes. Racing legend Mario Andretti, a close friend and team-mate of Lucien Bianchi, said: “My heartfelt condolences to the Jules Bianchi family for this very sad ending of a promising young life. My prayers are with you.”
Lewis Hamilton said: “A sad, sad day today, guys. Please pray for Jules’ loved ones. RIP Jules. God bless,” while his fellow British champion Jenson Button, who lost his father John last year, said: “Last night we lost a truly great guy and a real fighter. RIP Jules. My sincerest condolences to his family and friends.”
Bianchi’s manager Nicholas Todt, the son of FIA president Jean Todt, described him as the little brother he had always dreamed of, and added: “Sharing those last 10 years with you has been an immense privilege.”
Fellow countryman Jean-Eric Vergne, a former F1 racer and now Ferrari’s test driver, said simply: “Destiny is probably the only thing you can’t fight, for the rest Jules is the biggest fighter and talented driver that I met.”
Bianchi was to have driven for the Ferrari-engined Sauber team in 2015, as part of his being groomed for a future seat with the legendary Italian scuderia. Instead, he leaves behind a desolated sport, memories of a charismatic and much-loved character who simply loved to race, and the haunting thought of what might have been.
Jules Bianchi, racing driver: born Nice 3 August 1989; died Nice 17 July 2015.