F1 » Jules Bianchi
Jules Bianchi appeared destined for F1 from the moment he first set foot in a kart, but stepping up to the final rung on the ladder took longer than expected.
With racing in his blood - the Frenchman is the grandson of multiple GT world champion Mauro Bianchi and also related to 1968 Le Mans 24 Hours winner and former grand prix driver Lucien - it was no surprise when young Jules took an interest in karting and first got behind the wheel at the tender age of three.
That early start paid dividends as Bianchi Jr worked his way through the karting ranks, finishing second in both the French and European junior championships in 2004, before winning the 2005 Formula A Asia-Pacific title and finishing fourth in that year's world standings. His first world title came the following season, when he clinched the 2006 WSK 125cc crown to go with another French Formula A championship and finishes of second in the World and Wintercups, third in the Italian championships and fifth in Europe. He also finished on the podium in the 125cc World Cup in Belgium for good measure.
Unsurprisingly, when Bianchi announced that he wanted to try his hand in single-seaters, there were plenty of interested suitors, allowing the Frenchman to take his pick, eventually moving to French Formula Renault with SG Formula for 2007. His skills transferred easily too, with five wins enough to land the national crown.
Despite dipping his toes into international waters with six outings in the FRenault Eurocup that season, Bianchi decided to step up another level for 2008, joining the crack ART Grand Prix team to contest the F3 Euroseries. Again, he adapted quickly to his new surroundings, claiming two wins in his debut season. Both, however, were overshadowed by victory in the prestigious F3 Masters at its temporary Zolder home.
Having finished third overall at his first attempt at the Euroseries, Bianchi entered 2009 as pre-season favourite, and lived up to his billing by taking nine race wins en route
to the title. He also took two wins from four races as a guest in the British F3 series and, having already tasted the Renault World Series with a brief return to the SG fold at Monaco, it was obvious that another step up the ladder would be on the cards for 2010.
To ease his move into the full GP2 Series, Bianchi took in the 2009-10 Asia Series, making six starts with ART, but the competition of the main championship meant that he endured his first winless season since graduating from karts. Despite that, he still finishing third overall, even though he was forced to sit out the Hungarian double-header after suffering a fractured vertebra in a first lap crash. He returned to action next time out in Belgium, despite fears that he could be ruled out for the season, and ended the season improving his position in the standings.
It was at this point that the Frenchman also got his first taste of F1. Managed by Nicolas Todt from the time he joined ART, it was not surprising that the opportunity came from Ferrari, which was impressed enough by a late 2009 run to add him to its Driver Development Academy and subsequently name him as official test and reserve driver for the 2010 campaign.
A second year in GP2 quickly produced a maiden win in the category, as he beat countryman Romain Grosjean to the line in the opening Asia Series round in Abu Dhabi. Finishing second to Grosjean in the final standings after the proposed back-to-back rounds in Bahrain were exchanged for a double-header at Imola, Bianchi entered the main championship in confident mood, but scored points in only two of first eight races, denting his title ambitions. Although his year turned on a victory at the British Grand Prix - where he held off Racing Engineering's Christian Vietoris in a wheel-banging duel - his improved form was only enough to lift the Frenchman to third in the championship, once again behind Grosjean.
Despite again being offered the chance to test with Ferrari, and being retained as its official reserve for the 2011 season, Bianchi was unable to break into F1 and, with his GP2 aspriations similarly thwarted, he opted to move full-time to the World Series by Renault, joining former champions Tech 1 Racing. Despite the series boasting perhaps a stronger line-up than GP2, the French combination was again among the frontrunners, with Bianchi taking more poles than anyone else and adding three race wins, which put him in a head-to-head battle for the title with rookie Robin Frijns ahead of the final double-header. The Frenchman's pursuit of the crown came to a controversial end after a collision with his main rival forced him out of the second race....
Whilst being retained by Ferrari for a third season, the Scuderia's desire to see Bianchi get more F1 track time saw him being loaned to Force India for 2012. As part of his role with the Silverstone team, the Frenchman received nine outings in opening free practice, as well as running with both teams during the year's various 'young driver' tests.
His strong showings during those sessions thrust Bianchi into the frame for Force India's second seat once it became clear that Nico Hulkenberg was heading for Sauber in 2013. While others were also rumoured to be under consideration, the team's choice eventually boiled down to a straight call between Bianchi and veteran Sutil, with both being given the chance to test at the pre-season sessions at Jerez and Barcelona. To Bianchi's frustration, Force India finally plumped for the 'experience' provided by Sutil, although sponsorship - and potentially the team's engine supply for 2014 - likely would have been a factor.
Force India's loss quickly turned into Marussia's gain, however, as Luiz Razia's sponsorship shortfall saw the minnow turn to Bianchi to fill the empty seat alongside Max Chilton. Despite being unfamiliar with both car and team, Bianchi was quickly up to speed at the final Barcelona group test, bettering Chilton's benchmark within 40 laps and setting up an intriguing debut in the top flight.