Monday, 20 July 2015

A Phrase Used All Too Often...

'A future world champion'; it's a phrase we hear a lot these days. It seems as if whenever a driver sets a purple sector time these days he or she is branded a future world champion. Rarely does it happen, however. What once probably meant a great deal is now something of a throwaway comment meaning half decent driver.

It some cases through, it does mean something. In once case in particular, it was seen as a dead cert.

Groomed for stardom by Scuderia Ferrari, Jules Bianchi was one of those drivers who had to walk around with the future world champion tag wrapped tightly around his neck. But unlike most, it wasn't a matter of if, but when the Frenchman's name was etched in the pages of history.

After taking five poles and fives wins on his was to the 2007 French Formula Renault title, the Nice native moved up to European Formula Three for 2008. It took him just three races to get onto the podium and two poles and two wins - including a debut victory on home soil - saw him finish third in the championship.

The following year was remarkable for Bianchi. Nine wins out of 20 saw him take a dominant Euro F3 title in only his third year of car racing. His performance attracted the attention of the Ferrari Formula One team who offered him seat time in their 2009 F1 car, the F60, at the Young Driver Test at Jerez following the conclusion of the F1 season.

He was instantly snapped up by the Italian giants and became their first, and so far still longest serving member of their Driver Academy.

GP2 was the next step for Bianchi but despite a podium on his first appearance, a win escaped him throughout much of his two years in the category, his only triumph coming in 2011 at Silverstone.

Despite missing out on the GP2 title twice, even though he was more often than not the championship favourite, Bianchi's relationship with Ferrari continued to blossom. In 2011, the Frenchman was promoted to the team's test roster. More F1 seat time followed.

In 2012 Ferrari loaned Bianchi to Sahara Force India where he took part in nine free practice sessions for the midfield team. He combined his new F1 role with a season in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series on the French manufacturer's World Series package. Despite three wins, the championship was once again elusive with a collision with eventual champion Robin Frijns in the final round leaving him to settle with second place.

An F1 race seat for 2013 now looked certain. Although bad luck and a handful of mistakes had prevented Bianchi from taking a single seater title for the last three years, there was no denying that the young Frenchman had shown promise, both in the junior categories and on his several F1 outings with Ferrari and Force India.

He began 2013 running for Force India but the team eventually opted for Adrian Sutil, seemingly leaving Bianchi without a race seat in Formula One. A year on the sidelines with the hope of securing a drive for 2014 beckoned until an opening came up further down the field.

Marussia were in search of another driver after Luiz Razia left the team before the first round due to sponsorship issues. Bianchi slotted into the team effortlessly.

Despite Bianchi's lack of preparation in comparison to his team mate, Max Chilton, he defeated Chilton in every qualifying session that year. In each race that the pair finished, he beat Chilton too. His 13th placed finish at Malaysia was also the team's best finish of the year, allowing them to take the all important tenth place in the constructors championship and with it vital prize money.

2014 would bring Bianchi the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Alongside testing duties for Ferrari, he continued to outperform Chilton at Marussia, beating the Brit in eight out of the nine races the pair finished, and took a landmark ninth place finish at that year's Monaco Grand Prix, despite starting from the back of the field.

The top-10 not only gave Bianchi his first points, but it was also the first time the Marussia team had scored points in their short F1 history. In fact, on that day, they became the first of the new-for-2010 to ever score in F1.

Those two points that day would go on to secure a vital ninth place in the standings. The prize money from that result also ensured that the team would survive the winter of turmoil that lay ahead.

However, that landmark result would come to be overshadowed by the events of October 5 - The Japanese Grand Prix.

In heavy rain, Bianchi left the track, hitting a recovery vehicle attending the stricken Sauber of Adrian Sutil. The unusual collision left Bianchi with severe head injuries.

Despite being declared stable enough to be transferred from Japan to France seven weeks later, Bianchi never awoke following the crash. He passed away nine months later.

In 2015 the Marussia team, now back to their original name of Manor, returned to the track. Their return was attributed to Bianchi's against-the-odds drive at Monaco the year before.

Bianchi was expected to line up for Sauber in 2015 and it is likely he would've been fighting amongst the top ten week-in, week-out. He was set to replace Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari in 2016 and then who knows what would have happened.

Every generation there is an influx of highly talented drivers. Some win every championship thrown at them. Some disappear and are instantly forgotten. Some perhaps might not always sit top of the tables, but they make an impression that lasts a lifetime.

Some are even branded a future world champion, but rarely does a bright star come along and become just that.

Images: Independent, ART Grand Prix, Ferrari, Autosport, Sky Sports, F1 Technical,

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