Ferrari

Jules Bianchi Ready for Next Step in Formula 1, but Should Ferrari Sign Him?

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 28:  Jules Bianchi of France and Marussia poses for a photograph during day two of Formula One Winter Testing at the Bahrain International Circuit on February 28, 2014 in Bahrain, Bahrain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Oliver HardenFeatured ColumnistJuly 8, 2014

Ferrari's choice of driver to replace the injured Kimi Raikkonen for this week's two-day test at Silverstone was telling.

The Prancing Horse could have played it safe and allowed Pedro de la Rosa, their regular test driver, an extended run in 2014-spec machinery. They could have asked Fernando Alonso, a two-time world champion, to hang around for a couple of days after the British Grand Prix to do the donkey work.

But they opted for Jules Bianchi, the Marussia driver, to fill the Raikkonen-sized void.

It was by no means the most surprising choice, of course—the Frenchman has been a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy since 2009—but it was by far the most fascinating.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 15:  Jules Bianchi of France and testing for Scuderia Ferrari at the Formula 1 Young Drivers Test, Yas Marina Circuit on November 15, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images  (P
Andrew Hone/Getty Images

It is almost a year since Daniel Ricciardo, the then-Toro Rosso driver, was handed the opportunity to participate in the young drivers' test at Silverstone for Red Bull with a view to replacing Mark Webber at the championship-winning team for 2014.

He took his chance and the rest, as they say, is history.

Similarly, Bianchi's chance to display his talent behind the wheel of the Ferrari F14 T feels like an audition for a future race seat.

After all, the only conclusion to draw from Ferrari's decision to invite the Frenchman to test is that when Raikkonen or Alonso eventually depart the team, Bianchi—provided he impresses the Italian squad with his conduct at Silverstone and maintains his form with Marussia—will be the prime candidate for a full-time drive.

But would Ferrari be wise to fast-track the 24-year-old to a leading seat?

Bianchi's F1 career, thus far, is, of course, defined by his ninth place finish at this year's Monaco Grand Prix, which ended Marussia's run of four full seasons and 83 grands prix without scoring a single point since the team arrived on the grid as Virgin in 2010.

The Monte Carlo race represented something of a breakthrough moment for team and driver, elevating both to the next level of the sport's pecking order and injecting renewed belief.

For Bianchi in particular, the result in Monaco did a fine job of papering over the cracks of what, until that point, had been a difficult second season.  

Like a musician struggling to live up to the fresh sound of his debut album, Bianchi—despite maintaining a pace advantage over teammate Max Chilton into year two—allowed a series of errors to creep into his driving.

The stewards decided that he was at fault for a first-lap crash with Lotus driver Pastor Maldonado in Malaysia, which led to the Frenchman receiving penalty points on his super license, before allowing himself to become embroiled in an unnecessary, irresponsible string of tangles in quick succession with Adrian Sutil, the Sauber driver, at the following race in Bahrain.

Even in the Monaco Grand Prix, it is worth recalling, Bianchi was slapped with two in-race penalties for failing to start from the correct grid spot before making the mistake of serving his first punishment under safety car conditions (although you would assume that Bianchi was not entirely to blame for these instances).

His performances since Monaco, though, have generally seen Bianchi revert to the form he showed for the vast majority of 2013, with the Frenchman claiming the team's best ever qualifying result in last weekend's British Grand Prix.

Bianchi is, if we are to judge his performances this season, a driver with stacks of potential but still a little rough around the edges.

In other words, he is not what Ferrari require in their current state.

And if we are to presume that both Alonso and Raikkonen will remain at Maranello for 2015, with the latter then pushing through with his plans to retire at the end of that season—as Jonathan Noble and Glenn Freeman of Autosport reported over the Silverstone weekend—it will not be until 2016 that Bianchi will have an opportunity to join Ferrari.

So the pressing question is this: If his road to Ferrari is blocked for another year, where does Bianchi spend 2015?

The most obvious move would be to join Sauber.

10 June 2001:  Sauber driver Kimi Raikkonen of Finland awaits the beginning of the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal, Canada. \ Mandatory Credit: Mark Thompson /Allsport
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The Swiss team have a long-standing affiliation with Ferrari and have in the past acted as a training ground for drivers who would go on to represent the Prancing Horse—including 2007 world champion Raikkonen and nearly-man Felipe Massa, with ex-Sauber driver Sergio Perez a former stablemate of Bianchi in Ferrari's young driver program. 

The addition of Bianchi would return some meaning to Sauber's driver line-up, with the current pairing of Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez arguably the most underwhelming on the grid.

However, the team's financial concerns and rapid regression from plucky midfielders to anonymous backmarkers in recent seasons could not only encourage Sauber to rely on low quality pay drivers but be considered a backwards step for Bianchi, with the Hinwil-based team still without a point after nine races this season.

The idea that driving for Marussia would improve a driver's chances of landing a Ferrari seat would have been laughable just 18 months ago, but it is now the reality facing Bianchi.

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 06:  Jules Bianchi of France and Marussia drives during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 6, 2014 in Sakhir, Bahrain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Despite their recent on-track achievements, expectations remain low for the popular Banbury-based outfit, meaning any half-decent results Bianchi earns are portrayed as the work of a future world champion.

And even of the occasions when that might not strictly be the case, it does no harm to the Frenchman's reputation. You only had to observe the fuss that surrounded Bianchi when he climbed out of his car in Monaco to see how just a single result can make a driver's stock go through the roof.

A bad race? Nobody notices, it's the car's fault. A good race? He's the hero.

Bianchi's outing at Silverstone this week is effectively a reward for that afternoon in Monaco, but it is just the start of his rise to the top.

It is in a racing driver's nature to want everything yesterday, but if he is to fulfill his promise, Bianchi's career requires careful management and pragmatism.

Good things, after all, come to those who wait.

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