Assessing Jules Bianchi as a Replacement for Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari in 2015

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistJuly 15, 2014

Jules Bianchi is a man on the move.

After a poor start to the year, his performances in the second half of the season to date have seen him reestablish himself as a leading contender for a move up the grid in 2015.

He scored his first F1 points in Monaco and, in tricky conditions at the British Grand Prix, qualified his Marussia in a fine 12th. The Ferrari Driver Academy member also tested for the team at Silverstone, setting the fastest time on the second day.

Two seasons with perennial back-markers Marussia is surely enoughhe'll be in a more competitive car next year as he continues his ascent within Formula One.

The man he replaced for the test, Kimi Raikkonen, seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

The Finn returned to Ferrari at the start of the season yet has been unable to recapture the form he showed with Lotus.

Team-mate Fernando Alonso has wrung every ounce of performance from the F14 T, and he sits fourth in the championship with 87 points. Raikkonen has struggled and lies 12th with just 19 points.

His heavy crash at Silverstone followed errors in Monaco and Canada, and Raikkonen has already decided he will leave F1 at the end of next season.

But could he depart before thenand could it be Bianchi taking his place?

Officially, the answer is no. Raikkonen has a contract until the end of 2015, and everyone concerned with the team has shown a united frontthere will be no change.

Before the British Grand Prix, team principal Marco Mattiacci told Andrew Benson of BBC Sport, "I have a fantastic couple of drivers, and I am very confident they will be with us next year."

And Bianchi is publicly ruling himself out of the seat. After the Silverstone test, he told reporters at the circuit (h/t Sky Sports):

At the moment I know that it is not the plan for the next year because they have a plan for their drivers. So I will just focus on what I have to do which is Marussia at the moment and try to get good results.

Obviously considering I am part of the Academy I think that is the target one day so I have to show them that I am ready in any case, but at the moment they have two drivers who are doing a good job so I don’t think it is the plan.

But only so much can be read into such words. Public and official support don't necessarily mean all is well behind the scenes, and Raikkonen's future is still not certain.

The 2007 world champion has proved over the course of his career that he is one of the best drivers of his generation. If he's happy in the car, Raikkonen can be unbeatable.

The problems start when he isn't happy in the car.

That's the situation he has found himself in this year. He has been unable to set up the car to handle the way he likes, something he admitted to Autosport's Jonathan Noble last month:

We try somehow to balance it out and try to have a front end on the car, but it is very, very difficult. I hate it when there is no front end on the car. And right now, if we sort out the front end we lose the rear and it is trying to balance it out - and somehow get it working.

If he and the team can find a solution to the problems he is experiencing, Raikkonen should at the very least be able to keep Alonso honest.

Should that happen, there's little reason for the team to cut him loose at the end of 2014, and it's unlikely he would choose to leave, either.

But if he can't find some form, his future is less clear. In hiring Raikkonen, Ferrari made it clear they had abandoned their long-standing policy of having a clear No. 1 driver. They want two men scoring good points for the constructors' championship and can't afford to carry a driver whose performances are not up to scratch.

Raikkonen has a contract, but Ferrari have lots of money. The cost of paying it off would barely register on their balance sheet, and it's not like they've never done it before.

And if he's spent a whole season struggling, will Raikkonen himself really want to carry on? He has already stated he expects to retire at the end of 2015, and it wouldn't be too surprising if he chose to bring it forward by 12 months.

So ifand it's a big ifFerrari do have a vacancy for 2015, would Bianchi be in with a shout?

The past would suggest he doesn't have a chance.

Ferrari have a history of conservative driver choices. The last time they gave someone their debut in one of the red cars was in 1972, when Arturo Merzario was given a couple of mid-season starts in the absence of Clay Regazzoni.

Inexperience just doesn't sit well with the Scuderia. There have been a few exceptionsGilles Villeneuve arrived with just a single race to his name in 1977, and Stefan Johansson had started only 13 when he replaced Rene Arnoux in 1985.

But the normal Ferrari rule has been to only hire drivers who have proved themselves on numerous occasions.

While traditional front-running rivals McLaren and Williams may take a chance on a Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya or Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari will not. They like to know what they're getting.

That bodes ill for Bianchi, because while he has shown flashes of brilliance and produced some quality drives, his F1 experience largely amounts to running around at the rear of the field in a race all by himself.

He rarely gets in a scrap for position, and when he does, it usually involves a much quicker car simply driving past him. Only once has he had a realistic chance of points.

By contrast, even the most "risky" hires Ferrari have made in the last 30 yearsEddie Irvine and Felipe Massahad spent years in midfield cars. They came armed with the experience of fighting for position and points against a variety of opponents.

Bianchi has driven in 28 races, but he has almost zero experience of the sort of racing he'd be doing with Ferrari.

And it's that, rather than Raikkonen's form, which may be the deciding factor. He may miss out even if the Finn does depart.

Unless, of course, Ferrari decide to throw away the tired old horse of the past, buy a nice new tractor and start ploughing a different furrow.

Whether or not Bianchi has a shot of getting the hypothetical spare seat is down to how much change has really occurred at Ferrari since their new team principal took the reigns.

Speaking to the press (h/t Sky Sports) at the British Grand Prix, Mattiacci said we'll see a different Ferrari next season:

Definitely we are working to improve, because today we are sixth. That’s the other side of the coin; we are not happy to be sixth.

Starting from here, we need to prepare a different team for 2015. Do we need to do announcements? No, I don’t think we need to do announcements.

Do we need to improve? Continuous improvement? Yes. That is our position.

Does different just mean the personnel behind the scenes, or does it mean the team are changing their whole outlook?

If this new-look Scuderia has the courage to do what the old one did notroll the die without first ensuring it's heavily weighted in their favourBianchi will have an excellent chance.

He's quick, already a part of the Ferrari family, deserves a shot and would not hesitate to seize the opportunity were it handed to him.

If they don't, we can still expect to see the Frenchman further up the grid next season.

But sadly for him, he won't be wearing red.


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