Jules Bianchi has died on Friday night following the horrific head injuries he sustained in last October’s Japanese Grand Prix. He was two weeks short of his 26th birthday.
“Jules fought right to the very end, as he always did, but today his battle came to an end.
“The pain we feel is immense and indescribable. We wish to thank the medical staff at Nice’s CHU who looked after him with love and dedication. We also thank the staff of the General Medical Center in the Mie Prefecture (Japan) who looked after Jules immediately after the accident, as well as all the other doctors who have been involved with his care over the past months.
“Furthermore, we thank Jules’ colleagues, friends, fans and everyone who has demonstrated their affection for him over these past months, which gave us great strength and helped us deal with such difficult times. Listening to and reading the many messages made us realise just how much Jules had touched the hearts and minds of so many people all over the world.
“We would like to ask that our privacy is respected during this difficult time, while we try to come to terms with the loss of Jules.” – Bianchi family statement
The French Formula 1 driver suffered massive head injuries when his Marussia Ferrari collided with a trackside recovery vehicle in rapidly-fading light during the rain-soaked race at Suzuka. The recovery tractor was in the final stages of pulling Adrian Sutil’s stricken car behind the safety fencing at the Dunlop Curve before Bianchi’s out-of-control car slid under the back of the six-and-a-half tonne crane. The impact speed was measured at 126km/h.
Bianchi was rushed to the local Mie General Hospital where emergency brain surgery was performed to relieve bleeding on the brain, and he was subsequently diagnosed with a diffuse axonal brain injury, an injury seen in high-speed impact accidents and which has a negligible chance of significant recovery for the patient.
He spent the next six weeks in an induced coma and on artificial respiration before being taken off respiration and successfully repatriated to the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Nice, near his home in the south of France.
The sport’s governing body, the FIA, launched an investigation into the circumstances of Bianchi’s accident where a ten-person panel released its findings in December that a number of factors – including the deteriorating weather and track conditions – were factors in the accident. It also found that Bianchi had failed to slow sufficiently through the yellow-flag zone set up for the recovery of Sutil’s car.
While the sport grappled with the aftermath of his accident and the way forward, Bianchi’s condition remained largely unchanged. His family would produce the occasional media update to report on his condition and thank fans and the wider motorsport community for its support.
Bianchi would never regain consciousness or show and significant improvement in his condition, and as time wore on, optimism of a miraculous recovery became dimmer.
The tell-tale signs that the end was approaching came earlier this week, his father gave a rare interview and said that the family’s hopes were dwindling.
It was probably an untold message that his condition had worsened; he would finally succumb on Friday.
His death marks the first time since Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash at the Imola in 1994 that a Formula 1 driver has died from injuries sustained at a Grand Prix.
Bianchi was contesting his second season of Formula 1 racing at the time of his crash, and earlier that year he had scored the Marussia team’s (so far) only points finish in Monaco when he crossed the line in ninth position.
Bianchi was born into a family with a motorsport association that went back three generations. His Italian great-grandfather worked with the factory Alfa Romeo team in the 1930s before relocating to Belgium to work with Belgian racer Johnny Claes.
His two sons, Lucien and Mauro (Jules’ grandfather), started racing in their teens. Mauro’s career would be cut short at the 1968 Le Mans 24 Hours when he was seriously injured in a fiery accident at Le Mans which ended his career and left him badly scarred. Less than a year later, Lucien – who had raced 19 Grands Prix to that point – was killed at Le Mans when his Alfa Romeo suffered a mechanical failure on the Mulsanne Straight and crashed into a telegraph pole.
The family forbade the next generation from racing, but Jules’ father Philippe ran a kart track at the French Riviera town of Antibes while a young Jules was starting to get behind the wheel. He didn’t start competitive racing until the age of ten and was into single-seaters in 2007.
He won the Formula Renault 2.0 title in his debut year with five victories, and then progressed to the Euro F3 Series in 2008. He won that year’s Masters of Zolder and finished third in the overall standings with the ART Grand Prix team.
Staying on for a second year alongside teammates Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Gutiérrez and Adrien Tambay, he dominated the season with nine wins and romped to the title. That won him a place on the Ferrari Driver Academy roster, and by 2011, he was officially signed as one of its Formula 1 test drivers.
Two seasons in the feeder GP2 Series netted him a pair of podium finishes, and he then spent the 2012 season dovetailing his role as Force India’s reserve driver with finishing as championship runner-up in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series.
He narrowly missed out on a promotion to Force India’s F1 race line-up, but Ferrari placed him at the Marussia team, with the aim of giving him the opportunity to hone his skills before an almost certain promotion to the Prancing Horse.
He thrashed teammate Charles Pic in an uncompetitive car in his debut season, and remained on in 2014, where further impressive performances marked him as a man to watch. Fellow cellar-dweller outfit Caterham was so nervous about Bianchi’s potential that they signed the equally impressive (although rather more mercurial) Kamui Kobayashi to its line-up.
Bianchi’s ninth-placed finish (originally eighth on the road until a post-race time penalty was applied) gave the team the crucial prize money it needed to see it remain on the grid after a period of administration during the winter of 2014-15. His run to the team’s sole top-ten finish came with an aggressive move on Kobayashi that ultimately saw the Japanese driver bundled out of the points; the Caterham team would close at the end of the season.
Alas, that fateful day in Suzuka would follow.
Jules is survived by his parents Philippe and Christine, his brother Tom and sister Mélanie.
The entire RF1 team extends its condoloences to Bianchi’s family and friends at this time.
Images via RF1 and XPB Images