The following article was written in late 2009 after a day spent at Brands Hatch for the DTM/Euro F3 championships and then originally published on February 23rd 2010.
In the short space of time between the race and the 2009/2010 winter, Jules Bianchi became 2009 Euro F3 champion, agreed to race for formidable GP2 ART team in 2010 and most impressively of all, inked a three year contract with the Ferrari F1 team.
SkiddMark spoke to Jules a few months before the media hype about this French prodigy went into top gear.
Brands Hatch: September 5th 2009
“Good grief. Was that Bianchi?” are the startled words of a friend beside me. I expected to perhaps hear similar words today but not for the reasons why they’ve just been uttered. I’m initially too busy staring in disbelief at what I’ve just witnessed to give any meaningful response, but eventually I manage to muster a reply, “blimey, I think it was.”
The lead F3 ART Dallara-Mercedes has crashed and is now spread in pieces in the gravel trap as a plethora of medical and support vehicles descend upon the scene of the accident. Passing around the outside of Paddock Hill Bend doesn’t work, then.
Wind back a couple of hours and I’m at an unusually sunny Brands Hatch for the British DTM and Euro F3 championship event. On this warm September afternoon I have the sole mandate of sitting down with France’s hottest racing property and current runaway Euro F3 leader Jules Bianchi for an exclusive interview.
Two weeks earlier we had arranged to sit down after his first race to chat about life and racing, but the events that have explosively unfolded before my eyes may well have thrown those plans out of the window. Later on, Jules will explain with a shrug belying the fact the he’d just walked away from a 120mph impact that “it’s normal, it’s racing,” but at the time I was concerned that he may have been injured after such a major off.
Entering the paddock earlier, I spot the trucks and enormous awning of the widely accepted strongest team in F3, French run ART, the provider of championship winning cars in the past for current F1 driver Lewis Hamilton.
Housed inside the intimidating awning are four pristinely prepared Dallara-Mercedes F3 cars, with the all French crew of mechanics working feverishly to perform their final checks before proudly sending the cars to the grid. Fans with grins they cannot suppress surround the impressive ART setup as the 2.0 litre Mercedes engines of each car is fired into life at ear-splitting levels to make sure all is in order.
Their attention is soon snapped away though as an unassuming character in jeans, t-shirt and with an iPod wired into his ears walks purposely towards the ART truck. It’s Jules, runaway championship leader, winner last time out at Nurburgring and everyone knows it. Instantly clocked by fans, he has no hope of stealthily slipping away to change into his race wear and planning how he will add another victory to his impressive tally of six this season.
Like a professional however, he poses with charm for photographs and signs autographs for everyone who asks for one, before giving a final smile and dashing into the truck to finally change. No other driver in the series receives half as much attention from the fans as Jules, it’s as if everyone subliminally knows the man from Nice is sooner rather than later destined for the summit of motor racing. He shortly afterwards pops out to see me and confirm he’s still happy to speak after the race and we part ways as I retire to the DTM paddock to attain the best vantage point for the race.
Despite being fastest in free practice, a mistake in Friday qualifying placed Jules in a poor grid slot of 16th, a difficult position to obtain any meaningful result at the best of times, and a problem magnified further by the twisty and short nature of the Brands Hatch Indy circuit. Unfazed, the softly spoken Frenchman produces a great start from the eighth row and soon works himself up to the gearbox of the 11th placed Portugese driver, Tiago Geronimi.
The nose-cone of the lead ART driver stalks Geronimi for a couple of laps, probing and trying to locate his weakness, before deciding the place to pounce into the uphill then downhill sweep of Paddock Hill Bend. An excellent run out of the final corner allows Jules to claw in Geronimi, the Frenchman electing to dart to the left of the start and finish straight – the outside for the next corner – to pass his victim.
Now completely side by side, both cars under braking bravely pitch their cars into the scene of the 1976 British Grand Prix opening lap incident, Paddock Hill Bend, ready to claim another brace of victims. Those around me drew breath as both cars miraculously negotiated much of the corner without touching one another.
This demonstration of formation driving was short lived however when Geronimi tried to squeeze Jules wide on the exit, with the ART driver refusing to give an inch, leading to a tangling of wheels. What happened next was about as catastrophic as one would expect when you collide two half tonne masses together, with both cars violently spearing off into the barriers and causing the race to be red flagged.
Fortunately, both drivers were eventually alert and well, so when I found Jules soon after, I first queried whether his style as an aggressive driver in karting had been adjusted for his car racing career, even if the answer based on the evidence I’d just seen was likely to be a resounding no.
“I didn’t really change, you just have to be a bit calmer in cars because if you’re like you are in karting you crash, like today. You saw with Geronimi I was outside, in front of him and he just had to lift and say ‘OK, I’ll lose this place,’ but he didn’t think like that, he just pushed and said ‘I will not let him pass me.’”
I found this comment interesting and more indicative of a driver with an aggressive style than the move itself; the confidence and self-belief that even afterward, he was completely in the right for outrageously attempting to pass a car around the outside of one of the most challenging corners in motor racing. Perhaps reminiscent of a certain 7- times world champion…
Technically however, with his car fully alongside, Jules was within his rights to keep his foot down, a point I make back to him which he unsurprisingly agrees to, “Yes, so it’s normal, it’s racing.” As Jules sighs and reflects a little more on the incident, his ever maturing and calculating side comes through as he explains to me that sometimes it’s perhaps best to step back and think of the big picture.
“Sometimes you have to realise ‘I’m slower, I have to stay behind’ and you have to be calm because you never know what will happen on the next lap. Maybe a driver will crash in front of you and you will finish P8 so tomorrow you will be P1 [due to reversed grids] so you just have to not be crazy on the track.”
I’ve quickly made my way over to Jules via almost being run over by Norbert Haug on a scooter in the DTM pits. My legs intact, Jules and I are now holed up in the back of the ART truck, dissecting what just happened with the deafening roar of DTM qualifying booming around in our ears.
Having just returned from the medical centre to the ART trucks in the back of an ambulance, Jules gingerly walked into his truck where I soon followed after I negotiated past his very protective but ultimately well meaning mechanics and advisers.
Racing is in his blood
The 20 year old has now changed into his jeans again and is casually lying back against the wall, freely offering his opinion and thoughts on any topic, insisting that he feels no more pain from the incident than a slightly sore back. Each question is answered immediately with meaningful insight and no hint of a platitude, impressive for a man who a handful of years ago couldn’t speak English. As Paul di Resta snatches DTM pole behind us, I want to get to know how to it all began for Jules, so I ask about his first forays into racing via karting.
“You know, I started at 3, but at 3 to 13 it’s just for fun because you are young and you just want to have fun. Then I started Formula A in karts, the top class, and I was an official Maranello team driver at 15 years old. I decided this is what I want to do when I was about 10 years old because I was doing it every day and it was my dream. So I decided in 2000 it was just a hobby and then at 15 it became a profession.”
I put it to him that I imagine at 15 all this seemed more fun than going to school and reading books, which brings us both out in laughter and agreement once more.
I am aware that it’s all too easy to compare young drivers to established or past greats, though already Jules’ life and career has more than a vague resemblance and number of parallels to Michael Schumacher’s. Jules’ earlier reference to how he drove karts every day was no exaggeration. Both he and Schumacher enjoyed the advantage of a Father who owned a karting circuit, with Jules openly admitting this was one positive aspect of his career development.
“When I was young for sure it helped because to have a kart track it’s a lot better to improve yourself and I was driving every day when I returned from school. I was going out to have fun and for sure, it was a very good thing for me. Dad still has the circuit so I still drive on it but just little rental karts, not Formula A, just to have fun with friends or my little brother as he is also racing.”
Sensing there may be the potential for a rapid future brotherly pairing in motor racing not seen since Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez, I ask if there’s a chance of two Bianchis making it in motorsport.
Jules though quickly pours cold water on such an idea by laughing then declaring that unlike him, his little brother is for now focused on school and is unlikely to join him on his racing career ascent. As an interesting aside and an example of how interconnected motor racing can be, Pedro Rodriguez won the 1968 Le Mans 24 Hours race in a Gulf Ford GT-40 paired with Jules’ now deceased great-uncle, Lucien Bianchi.
Mentors and friends
Mindful of this, my thoughts run to how the modern day driver needs more than just ferocious raw talent to stand a chance of reaching the ultimate dream of a place in Formula 1. Outside of the obvious requirement of funding and generally lots of it, it is the inner circle of company a driver keeps that often helps make or break a career.
Jules has been on the receiving end of experienced and mature guidance since a young child, thanks partly to grandfather and three times world GT champion, Mauro Bianchi.
Of Mauro’s influence Jules states, “Yes of course, he helps me sometimes, like he sends me messages at the races. He follows my every race and it’s really good to have him because he teaches me the technique of the car, because he was not just a driver but also an engineer. So it’s really good. I never met Lucien (Mauro’s brother), because he died too early but it’s good to have Mauro around.”
The man Jules holds up as chiefly responsible for his rapid career progression is not from his family, however he does have a famous motorsport surname. After a glittering karting career was wound up with a mountain of trophies at home, Jules had to decide how to best next move forward, ideally into single-seaters. One man took Jules under his wing and the pair have not looked back since, with Jules winning the French Formula Renault title at his first attempt in 2007 and in 2008 adding the F3 Masters title to his résumé.
The man who took a chance on a very young and raw Jules was Nicolas Todt, son of FIA President and ex-Ferrari CEO Jean Todt. Now his – and Felipe Massa’s – manager, Jules has nothing but glowing words for his fellow Frenchman.
“The best thing for me for sure was to have Nicolas Todt as my manager,” he first tells me, with notably more thought going into his words now to ensure he is fully respectful of his friend and manager. “Because when I stopped my career in karting he helped me to get to Formula Renault and F3. We signed a contract at end of 2006 and since then he’s been my manager, so it’s the best thing for me to have him. It’s a very close relationship and he is like my father of racing, it’s the best thing for me to have him.”
I steer things back onto the technique of driving, something Jules obviously loves talking about judging by how his face lights up when racing is mentioned. I ask if his style of driving is based on anyone in particular, or whether he has just developed and nurtured his own style of attacking flair. “It’s difficult to copy someone because everyone is different,” he first tells me, with a small hint of confusion across his face. To help, I offer famous examples to see if he has modelled himself on any names of yesteryear’s technique, citing Prost’s neatness and precision or Senna’s raw aggression.
“Yes, yes, for sure. But I don’t really copy a style, I just work a lot with my engineer to look at the data because we work with it a lot to see where we brake, when we apply the throttle and those things …” There’s a pause, so I suggest that these other things may involve applying more throttle and he begins laughing once more. “Yes! So, I just work with my engineer I would say that’s my best point, my worst point would be last year that I wanted a lot to win so I was wanting to go faster, faster and faster so I would crash.”
I’m impressed at his modesty to be able to critique himself without me prompting him to, before allowing him to continue. “So, I’ve worked a lot on it to be calm with myself and to wait a bit because in car racing you never know what will happen as I said before. So, I just wait and I am calmer now.”
Fascinated by the psychology of where a driver privately believes they are strongest, I ask which trait he would attribute as his most formidable. As the words leave my mouth I realise how much of a job interview question it sounded, with Jules reacting like a nervous job candidate by umm’ing and ahh’ing before replying.
“I think I am good at overtaking normally. Today it didn’t work but normally I’m quite good, but it’s difficult to say my best or worst point … I think I like a lot to work on the data to learn the track.” I ask him if he likes the technical challenge most of all, then. “Yeah, the technical side I like a lot and for a driver it’s good to like it.”
I’m not surprised he enjoys this technical side. As a leading 21st century racing driver, intelligent analysis and interpretation of the data plays a fundamental part of the makeup of a quick and successful driver. Coupled with a fundamentally quick and highly motivated driver like Jules, it becomes easy to see why he is waltzing away with the 2009 title.
He continues on, “So at the end, for my driving style, I don’t know which is my best point you will have to ask someone else than me! Or to watch and see me, to tell me what it is, but it’s a bit difficult to answer myself.”
Handling the pressure
The nice thing about the gradual progression of passing through each rung of junior formulae ladder is that it teaches you not simply the art of handling faster cars, but it also develops other elements of a driver such as tyre management, pacing oneself through a weekend and handling the media. Another area a driver with aspirations of reaching the very top must master is that of pressure – pressure from team management, team mates, your adoring but expectant fans, the media and more.
This season sees Jules as team leader to three other drivers, so I float the idea that this focus of being number one might possibly be an unwelcome distraction. To this idea and of his team mates he seems typically unflustered.
“No, I just stay concentrated and at the start of the season everyone was saying I was the favourite, so I just take it and block them out of my mind and think about my racing, like last year. It’s just racing and that’s all. I have a #1 on the car but this is nothing really, it’s just a number, it’s nothing. So, I am always pushing and concentrating on every race. We all have the same car so they [my team mates] are fast, plus they are rookies so if they’re faster it’s not good, so I just stay concentrated and make my results.”
2010 and the future
I’m keen to shift things from the present tense to the future, so I ask him to elaborate on what will happen in 2010 once 2009 is dispensed with. “My plan is to finish well in this F3 season and win the championship and then if I win it, I hope I will go in GP2. Normally that’s the plan with my manager but we’ll see what will happen.”
I believe I already know the answer to my follow-up question given his native language, ART’s connections with Todt and that they’re already his F3 team. In any case, I respond by asking if his GP2 ride in 2010 will be with ART? “Yes, I hope so, we will have some tests this winter and we will see after that what will happen.” Just as I expected, and he could certainly do worse than a GP2 drive with ART, the team that delivered GP2 titles to Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.
Interested to see how much further into the future a man who has only recently entered the third decade of his life has thought, I lean back and expansively ask where he ideally sees himself in five years time. “In F1 you think?!” he counters back to me by turning the question back on me. As we both start laughing and I explain how only he can answer this, he settles down and immediately becomes serious once more.
“My goal is to be in Formula 1, my dream is to be in Formula 1 also so for every driver it’s the same and I know it’s going be very difficult because there are only 20 drivers in F1, so you have to be really perfect and also I have to improve my English.” I reassure him that his English is more than fine. “Ah, yeah but it’s not perfect.”
When I offer that this interview would be going far slower and doubtless descend into an incomprehensible mess if conducted in French, he laughs once more and accepts it’s probably best we continue in English. “I just have to work and stay concentrated and not put any pressure on myself by saying I have to be in F1. Just take it step by step, be calm, realise I have time. I’m still 20 years old, so I still have 2 or 3 years, for sure. So at the moment F3 is very good, I have a lot of points, so we’ll see.”
An impressive and mature response from a head that lies on what are ultimately young shoulders. One imagines the influence of his family and Todt have made him grounded and to not take his opportunity and situation lightly or for granted like many other drivers in the past have.
I quickly become conscious of the fact that despite us both enjoying our chat, Jules walked away from a monumental accident less than 60 minutes ago, so I suggest we stop and that he gets some rest. We talk racing a little more, and he tells me his favourite driver of all time is Michael Schumacher and the most desirable road car in his mind is a Ferrari 599 GTB. Expensive taste indeed, though with the rapid rate of his career ascension, I wouldn’t be surprised if he can write a personal cheque for one within a few years time.
I’m trying to find a chink in his armour to see if he’s not quite 100% dedicated, not fully focused but I’m at a loss.
Even outside of the track he is wholly committed to his racing as he tells me, “There is a girlfriend, of two years and she supports me. And well I do fitness, football, running and also bicycles, karting. Lots of fitness, I really like it. I also like playing around on the Internet but I prefer fitness and sports.”
His intensive fitness regime, liberal use of “for sure” and animated hand gestures all serve to underline that he is very much a modern racing driver.
The next day he skips race two, smartly choosing to preserve his body for the next event. It’s another example of this quick but intelligent man playing the percentages and his understanding that not every opportunity should be snatched at.
Wild rumours were linking the youngster with the Ferrari seat after Luca Badoer’s recent lethargic performances, though one genuinely suspects given his immense maturity and sound counsel of advisers, he would have rejected such an opportunity and continued on the career path as he (and his manager) sees best. Given a few years and on his own immense talent alone, I wouldn’t be surprised if a 599 GTB is not the only Ferrari Jules pilots in his career.
MODENA – 03/08/2010: The young French driver, who turns 21 today, is currently at the AEK Hospital in Budapest, after his accident in Race 1 of the GP2 event last Saturday at the Hungaroring, in which he suffered a fracture to a lumbar vertebra. His post-operative recovery is going very well, to the extent that Jules got out of bed today and was able to take his first steps. As he prepares to return to France, where he will convalesce, on behalf of everyone at Ferrari and his fans, we extend two fold wishes to Jules, for his birthday and for a speedy return to the track!