A Loss Too Great

Image © Ferrari

I sit here typing away, with the never-ceasing dull pain in my heart and an emptiness in my soul the likes of which I have not felt in years, trying to express my feelings about the loss of a man who was only four months older than me, yet lived a life that was infinitely more fulfilling in the short time he was with us than I could ever hope to even if I lived a hundred years.

Jules Bianchi is gone. Well and truly gone after spending the last nine months in a comatose state for nine months, his family in an unimaginable scenario wherein his state of “living” – if you can even call it that – was described as “unbearable”, “a daily torture”, and “worse than if he had died” on the afternoon of October 5th, 2014, by his own father. And yet, as the weeks turned into months spent clinging to life, as the hope of a full recovery withered into nothing, then the hope of any sort of recovery died along with it, the confirmation of his death last night still caused me to break down as if it was a sudden instance.

I lost one of my favorite drivers in Formula 1.

Motorsport is inherently dangerous, this I am well aware of. Jules Bianchi was not the first driver cut down before ever reaching the zenith of his career. Hell, I can still remember how shocked I was at learning of the deaths of amazing young men like Greg Moore, Adam Petty, and Marco Simoncelli before him. Even as circuits and cars become safer with every passing year, even as race directors do everything in their power to prevent drivers from racing in unsafe conditions, I know he will not be the last either.

It must be understood that an entire generation of Formula 1 fans had never seen a driver lost as a result of a racing accident in over twenty years – Ayrton Senna‘s death in 1994 was the last. To many people, this is the first time they have seen a driver die in a racing accident, this is the very first time they have ever felt this sort of grief. It must also be understood that the Bianchi family already had a tragic racing history to reconcile. Jules’ great uncle Lucien Bianchi, who once stood on the podium at the Monaco Grand Prix, was killed in a testing accident at Le Mans just a year after he had won the famous 24 Hour race driving a Ford GT40. With the advent of social media, fans feel a stronger connection to their favorite drivers, and vice versa – they become almost like friends from a distance.

It was only recently that I began to follow the various feeder series like the ones Jules Bianchi competed in from 2007 to 2012, so forgive me for saying that I may not be the best person to summarize his career prior to Formula 1. But I will try. Those six years climbing the ladder were split between the immediate success in Formula Renault 2.0 as a single-seater rookie, then becoming the Formula 3 champion of Europe – putting him in the elite company of former world champions like Senna, Prost, Schumacher, Clark, Stewart, Hakkinen, Fittipaldi – with one of the most dominant seasons in history.

The other half was spent in two luckless seasons in the GP2 Series that saw him finish a distant third in the championship both times, and win just one race, while also suffering a back injury late in the 2010 season. Then in 2012, a move to the Formula Renault 3.5 Series saw Bianchi take the title fight to the final round, before a collision with Robin Frijns in the last race put Bianchi out of the running for the championship. Frijns won the title, and with Red Bull Junior Team ace Antonio Felix da Costa winning four of the last five races of the season in a partial campaign, Bianchi wasn’t even perceived as the best driver that didn’t win the championship that year.

The last victory of a career far too short.
The last victory of a career far too short.

He was still the most coveted prospect, the “golden boy of the future” of the most powerful team in all of motorsport – Ferrari – yet as late as February 28th, 2013, we weren’t sure if Jules Bianchi would ever make it to Formula 1. That off-season, he had tested for Force India, and tested well, matching incumbent driver Paul di Resta‘s pace in a car that was very much capable of reaching the podium. The seat appeared to be his. But Force India was also a team embroiled in off-track turmoil that winter, and when Adrian Sutil emerged from a year in racing exile, the team went with him over Bianchi. Sutil was a known commodity within the organization that brought continuity and a small sum of sponsorship money to a team that was desperate to regain its bearings. Common sense dictated that this should have been the final door to F1 slammed in the face of Jules Bianchi.

But then a funny thing happened on March 1st. Marussia F1 Team, a fairly new team and a perennial backmarker, were also enduring a turbulent off-season of their own. After three seasons in F1, they had yet to score a championship point. They had to cut loose veteran driver Timo Glock due to financial difficulties and bring in well-funded, but less prolific drivers Max Chilton and Luiz Razia up from the GP2 Series. When payments from Razia’s sponsors failed to reach the team, they had to break their agreement. And it was then, on the morning of March 1st, 2013, that Bianchi and his benefactors at Ferrari reached a deal at the eleventh hour for him to race for Marussia in 2013. In his first test session, with no prior experience in the Marussia MR02, Bianchi blew away Chilton’s best time by over a second.

I felt at the time that this was the signing that would give Marussia their first Formula 1 points. I knew enough about Jules Bianchi, even before I started to sink my teeth into the feeder series, to know that he was going to elevate what had been a mundane backmarker team into something much greater with his talent alone.

Bianchi put together what I would consider the finest rookie season for a driver that never scored a point since Fernando Alonso in 2001. His high marks of the 2013 season included a best qualifying result of 15th at the Belgian Grand Prix – a new best for the Marussia team. His 13th place finish at Malaysia in just the second round of the season was the deciding result that elevated Marussia to tenth ahead of Caterham in the World Constructors’ Championship. In a season comprised entirely of dry races with very little attrition, Bianchi never got within the points, but his intra-team statistics were mind-blowing: Bianchi out-qualified his teammate Chilton 17 times out of 18 sessions where both drivers set a time, he out-finished him 14 times out of 16 races where both drivers finished, and he ran ahead of him for nearly 80% of the total laps that season.

As Caterham lost their way with poor leadership and less effective drivers, Marussia with Bianchi began to morph into the reincarnation of the Minardi team of a generation past. They were the fighting underdogs everyone could get behind. And Bianchi was the driving force behind it, just as Alonso and Mark Webber were at Minardi in the early 2000s.

Jules+Bianchi+F1+Grand+Prix+Monaco+tqY4TYEUrl8l

On the morning of the Monaco Grand Prix in 2014, I wasn’t at home to watch the race. I was at an anime and video games convention in Atlanta, hoping that I could sneak off early to a hotel lounge to watch the race since I did not wish to disturb my roommates by watching it in the hotel room. That quest was a failure since all the lounges were closed and none of them had the race on TV, but I had the race recording on the DVR as a backup. While trying for the entire day to avoid spoiling the results, I had a lapse in judgment, opened Twitter on my phone, and got tipped that Jules Bianchi was running in the points paying positions at Monaco, but that he had incurred a penalty that put him at risk of losing out. It was then that I knew I had to head home that evening and watch the race as soon as possible. And so I did, I watched it unfold.

In a classic war of attrition at the principality, Bianchi clawed his way into the points using his supreme pace and a bit of timely aggression to push into the points. The penalty in question was a five-second infraction for trying to serve another five-second penalty under a safety car. It seemed in jeopardy, but then when Kimi Raikkonen and Kevin Magnussen tangled at the Loews Hairpin, Bianchi moved up eighth on the track, and when the five-second penalty was added, he was only dropped to ninth place. It was enough for two championship points. His first points. Marussia’s first points. The breakthrough of a lifetime for every member of the Marussia team – from John Booth and Graeme Lowdon to the countless mechanics and engineers working under them.

Immediately, my mind flashed back to the amazing debut drive of Mark Webber in Melbourne in 2002, finishing fifth for Minardi after a whopper of a David vs Goliath duel with Toyota’s Mika Salo. It recalled the moment I screamed and leapt in celebration in the grandstands of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when Hungarian driver Zsolt Baumgartner finished eighth for Minardi in the 2004 United States Grand Prix. Nico Rosberg won the race and Lewis Hamilton, with a pebble in his eye, faded down the stretch – and none of it mattered to me because Jules Bianchi finished ninth and Marussia got in the points.

That was the moment I knew Bianchi was truly special, and the moment he became one of my favorite drivers in Formula 1.

And he did it all with a quiet confidence. He was soft-spoken and humble, a contrast to French F1 legends that preceded him – like the volatile fireball of passion and fury that was Jean Alesi, or the low-key, cerebral ruthlessness of four-time world champion Alain Prost. He had a vibrant smile that endeared him to fans all over the Formula 1, and by every account he was as great and upstanding a young man as he seemed in the public eye. He was becoming a fan favorite to the world who were now starting to realize what sort of gifted driver he was, if they weren’t already aware.

And the fighting spirit didn’t stop there. In a wet/dry qualifying in Silverstone, arguably his most successful track, he qualified a sensational twelfth place on the grid, as Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, and Kimi Raikkonen were eliminated after the first stage of knockout qualifying. As Lewis Hamilton blew up and Raikkonen imploded again on Saturday two rounds later at the Hungaroring, Bianchi got to Q2 and qualified 16th, and then again after the summer break in Spa-Francorchamps where he beat out Nico Hulkenberg – the man he might have replaced at Force India a winter ago.

TEST GRAN BRETAGNA F1/2014

By the time of the fateful race in Suzuka, Bianchi had again put together a masterful season of intra-team dominance: 12-3 vs Chilton in qualifying, 8-3 in race results, and he spent over 75% of race laps ahead of his British teammate. But now he also had those two crucial championship points in hand, and several very impressive mid-season tests for Ferrari under his belt despite not being sure of his F1 future after the season. His next step up was to have been a one-year deal for Sauber, a team that had helped to usher the likes of Raikkonen and Massa to future F1 greatness in years past, and the deal was signed on the weekend of the Japanese Grand Prix.

In torrential downpour, Bianchi ran as high as third place on track. It was an irrelevant afterthought by the end of the race.

The panic in the Marussia garage. The frightened tone in pit reporter Will Buxton‘s voice as he relayed the information to his NBC broadcast colleagues calling the race in America. The frantic scenes of rescue crews trying to save Bianchi’s life. The police escort to the hospital. The subdued podium ceremonies. Me staying up as late as 6 AM hoping that I wouldn’t wake up to read that he had lost his life in the hospital. Fellow fans struggling to keep their composure in a time of unthinkable sorrow. The picture of Adrian Sutil standing helpless at the scene of the accident. Every detail of every moment of that awful afternoon still sticks in my head.

And this was all before seeing the horrific amateur footage of the accident itself that is now permanently burned into my brain.

I cannot even pretend to understand even a portion of what his family has endured over the last nine months. Their heartache and loss is unthinkable, and they are completely justified in asking for privacy after this immense period of suffering as their son, their brother, slipped away slowly with every passing month of bleak horror.

Bianchi traveled the world in his brief time, and several of the world’s finest racers in virtually every major category have now lost a dear friend, a great sporting rival, or both. As well as the mechanics and engineers at every team from ART to Tech 1 Racing to the current Manor F1 Team to the mighty Scuderia Ferrari who were privileged enough to work with such a fine talent.

And the fans, who are now left with only the memories of a driver who, sadly, joins a list too long to bear repeating, from Stefan Bellof to Greg Moore, Davey Allison to Marco Simoncelli, Tom Pryce to Roger Williamson – a generation-defining talent at the threshhold of greatness who was taken too damn soon, a driver that was both immensely gifted yet endeared himself to those who supported him through his relentless drive and perseverance over hardship. A worthy successor to the heritage of champions and legends at Ferrari. A driver I was a pretty big fan of. A driver I will never forget.

This pain of loss will not recede any time soon, for it is too great to pass in a fleeting moment, and the cold feeling felt across the world of motorsport has frozen us all in grief.

I count myself fortunate that I saw Jules Bianchi race. Which is why I am now terribly sad that he’s no longer here.

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