Following Jules Bianchi's funeral in Nice, Charles Bradley remembers time spent with an enthusiastic 18-year-old about to embark on his first season of Formula 3.
Attending funerals is one of the hardest things for a human being to have to face. Not only are you saying goodbye to a loved one, it’s a stark reminder of mortality – not just for yourself, but for those around you – which is always tough to cope with.
In Nice, the majority of the Formula 1 grid said its final goodbye to Jules Bianchi, who not only was a peer – but in many cases a good friend – of those drivers. It’s a mercifully rare occurrence for an F1 driver to lose his life in action these days, compared with the pre-safety-conscious era of the sport, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult to handle when it happens.
In a sport where a career is unlikely to be very long at the top level, it’s a reminder of the fact their life is at risk too.
The most important aspect of a funeral, for me, is the closure and finality of it. Time to sadly walk away and move on.
Celebrating a short but bright life
It’s important that we remember and celebrate Bianchi’s life and times.
I can’t claim to have known Jules well, but I can tell you about the first time I met him – on an FFSA training camp trip in Dubai in January 2008. He was a newbie on the French Federation's Auto Sport Academy roster, but despite his tender years – and gentle nature – it was clear he could be quite the leader of the gang.
With ‘head boy’ Romain Grosjean busy winning the opening round of GP2 Asia at the Autodrome that weekend, it was an 18-year-old Bianchi who set the tempo for Charles Pic (with whom he is playing giant chess in the main photo), Adrien Tambay, Jean-Eric Vergne and Jean Karl Vernay for the fitness trials.
As they pounded out length after length in the swimming pool, I recall lounging back with ‘team captain’ Jean Alesi and remarking that – if Bianchi’s career progressed as planned – he’d make a good F1 team leader one day.
After a punishing morning of fitness activity (for them, not Jean and I), we shared some great fun on a desert jeep safari to a camel farm. How we laughed as Grosjean, who had now joined us, got a true ‘French kiss’ from a camel… After pizza with the group that evening, I played my part in the deal by interviewing them all one by one.
Although only 16, Tambay was very friendly; Pic was a bit shy (his voice still hadn’t broken!); Vergne was very intense and more enthusiastic about asking me questions than answering them. Vernay I already knew from F3 – in fact it was a photo from this weekend on his Facebook page that gave me the idea to write about this.
A young talent on his way to F1
And then there was Bianchi…
“I won the Formula A World Cup in karting and last year’s Formula Renault title in France,” he said, his English already perfect. “This year, it’s a great opportunity to be with ART for my first season of Formula 3. There is a bit of added pressure on me, because it’s my first year and there are a lot of second-year drivers, so it will be difficult for me. But I am in the right place, and I’ll do everything possible to have a good season.
“Testing has been good so far. I have got to within three-tenths of [Nico] Hulkenberg in testing, so that is encouraging, and we will see how close I get to him in the next one. I have also got two English team-mates, [Jon] Lancaster and [James] Jakes, and I think they will be strong too. Lancaster is a rookie like me, so it will be good to judge myself against him, because he’s a strong driver.”
I also recall the notes I took about him at the time: “Already appears to be a highly-rounded, self-confident individual. Takes things in his stride and is realistic about the task facing him in first year of F3, but ambition to shine is burning deeply here.”
Reckon I got that spot-on.
The time for tears is over. Just like the group of drivers at his wake, we should raise a glass and remember those good times. And hold on to them dearly.