Formula 1 has a knack of producing the odd fairytale now and then. The greatest fable, Brawn GP, will remain an integral part of the sport’s folklore for years to come. However, the latest Cinderella story came courtesy of Jules Bianchi and Marussia, who scored their first ever points in the history of the sport in Monaco. Could this be the first big step on his road to Ferrari?
Maybe we’re overreacting. After all, without the eight retirements in Monaco, it’s unlikely that Bianchi would have finished so high up the order. It was – in some ways – by default. Kamui Kobayashi was particularly annoyed with the Frenchman’s tough overtake on him; was it too tough? Did Bianchi really deserve P9 come the end of the race?
This was the debate I had with someone yesterday – and I was against all of those points made. Sure, Bianchi did benefit from retirements, but that’s part of the game. His move on Kobayashi? One straight out of the Japanese driver’s playbook. He saw a gap, and had the kahunas to make it through. He then defending valiantly from Jean-Eric Vergne’s advances until the Toro Rosso retired, before seeing of Romain Grosjean in the final few laps of the race, only to lose the position because of a five second time penalty.
It was a breakthrough drive that has only confirmed his candidacy for a Ferrari seat in the near future.
When Jules made his debut for Marussia at the beginning of 2013, it was under strange circumstances. He looked to be a shoo-in for the seat at Force India alongside Paul di Resta after an impressive test for the team – even Bianchi himself thought it was his. However, when Sutil came knocking once again with his bumper sponsorship, and when Mercedes said that they preferred a German driver, the chance disappeared.
When Luiz Razia’s funding fell through, though, Marussia handed Bianchi a chance to shine. And shine he did. In the first two races, he outclassed the other backmarkers, and finished a pivotal P13 in Malaysia. Come the end of the season, it would give the team 10th place in the constructors’ championship.
After his impressive first couple of showings, the F1 world began to play Bianchi up as the next best thing. As the rest of the season wore on and Caterham re-established its dominance over Marussia, this hype began to mellow. He was still outclassing teammate Max Chilton, and still putting in some impressive displays, but nothing to really turn heads.
This was true at the beginning of the new season. Chilton outqualified him in Australia and Spain, and outraced him in the first three races of the year. The jury was out: “Chilton’s definitely been the more impressive Marussia.” Was Jules going off the boil?
Monaco proved his star quality that is often masked by the capability of the car. Just as Daniel Ricciardo did very little at HRT, Jules hasn’t been pushing for points regularly. Last weekend, though, there was a chance which he grabbed with both hands. Two points might not be many in the grand scheme of things, but it meant the world to Marussia. The stars come out to play in Monaco, but it was the smiles from the garage at the end of the pit lane that shone brightest.
What does this mean for Jules in the future, though? As the leading member of Ferrari’s driver academy, a move to Maranello is the ultimate goal. There might have been some reservations about stepping up from Marussia to Ferrari in one step, and although this result would have eased some concerns, it’s still a big jump.
Instead, Ferrari will be looking for an intermediate step – which, in fact, is one the team could create itself at Force India.
The ‘dream team’ of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen has failed to live up to expectations so far this season. In part, this is down to Mercedes’ dominance, but also the fact that Raikkonen in particular hasn’t quite performed. He was unlucky in Monaco, but his move on Kevin Magnussen was misjudged. Kimi has a tendency to push too hard when things aren’t quite going his way; Singapore 2008 was a classic example.
The rumours about Alonso moving to McLaren will continue to circulate, but it is instead Kimi who is perhaps the more likely driver to leave Maranello. Yes, it’s early days, but, come the end of the year, it wouldn’t be totally surprising to see him leave. Should he choose to, the likely replacement would be Nico Hulkenberg, if we are to presume that Bianchi isn’t quite ready yet.
Hulkenberg came close to joining Ferrari as Felipe Massa’s replacement last year. He had a contract on the table that was missing a few crucial signatures, and they were never inked as Raikkonen became available thanks to Lotus’ struggles. Therefore, he’s still in the sights for Maranello. Of course, they could throw a curveball and immediately hire Bianchi.
Again, though, this is all hypothetical. We can say with some certainty that by the end of the 2015 season, at least one Ferrari seat will become available. Until Alonso has the car underneath him, he will still be linked with moves away, and this in turn will keep Hulkenberg and Bianchi on red alert.
A possible action plan at Ferrari would be to sign Hulkenberg when one of its current drivers leaves, then Bianchi when the other goes. Bianchi could fill in at Force India, or maybe even Sauber if the Swiss team ups its game.
With P9 in Monaco, Bianchi proved to everyone that he has lost none of his potential, ability or balls. It was a great drive, and, if he carries on like this, Maranello could come calling sooner rather than later.
Images courtesy of Marussia F1 Team and Octane Photographic.