With all the drama that has unfolded at the front in the opening two races of the new season, it’s easy for the fortunes of some of the drivers further down the grid to completely skip you by.
It’s happened to many a formidable driver in the past. Lucas di Grassi, Jerome D’Ambrosio, Charles Pic. All three are extremely capable behind the wheel of the racing car, and yet despite putting in very competent performances in their rookie seasons, if you hadn’t made a concerted effort to look out for them, you’d hardly have noticed they were there.
For Jules Bianchi however, that could not be further from the truth. Despite having just two races under his belt with the Marussia team, the young Frenchman has surpassed all expectations and has caught the eye of everyone in the paddock with a series of outstanding performances, both in qualifying and race conditions.
It’s easy to forget that Bianchi came into the season as the most undercooked of all the drivers in the field. Having spent most of the winter embroiled in a fight with Adrian Sutil for the Force India drive, it looked like the 23-year-old’s chance of finding a seat in F1 had passed him by with just weeks remaining until the first race.
But when the funds Luiz Razia had promised to bring to Marussia failed to materialise, it opened up an extra slot on the grid, and with the backing of Ferrari behind him, Bianchi had found himself a drive with just over a fortnight remaining until the start of the season.
Anyone who had signed for a new team with so little testing could be forgiven for taking a while to get up to speed. In the case of Bianchi it was to be expected. Although regarded as a better driver than his teammate Max Chilton following a more impressive junior career than the Englishman, when he rocked up at Marussia on the Saturday of the final Barcelona test, nobody expected him to match the pace of a driver who had clocked up eight days of running in the new car.
On a Circuit de Catalunya that was far from at its best following two days of rain, Bianchi promptly lapped nearly a second quicker than Chilton had managed on the same track all winter.
If that alone didn’t make heads roll, then his performances in the opening two rounds of the season certainly did. Twice Bianchi has qualified the highest of the four backmarkers. Twice he has finished the race as the highest of the four backmarkers. And twice he has blown Chilton out of the water, finishing well over half a minute clear of him in both Melbourne and Malaysia.
Those performances are backed up by equally impressive statistics. In Australia Bianchi, driving the second slowest car on the grid, set the fastest lap of anybody in the entire race on the super-soft tyres, and with a time that was less than a tenth of a second shy of the quickest time set by world champion Sebastian Vettel in the same race. When you consider that in dry conditions, the Marussia is at least three seconds a lap off the ultimate pace, that is an astonishing achievement.
His qualifying performance in Sepang was just as mighty. Bianchi qualified 19th, but was just two tenths slower than Valtteri Bottas in the Williams and just other half a second shy of making it into Q2. His time of 1:38.434 was almost a second faster than the Caterham of Charles Pic, who was the next best backmarker driver. He may only be two races into his Grand Prix career, but Bianchi has established himself in a league of his own compared to the drivers around him.
Bianchi’s performances so far are at a level not seen in a back-of-the-grid team since Fernando Alonso performed biblical-like miracles in a Minardi in 2001. If the Frenchman can continue to perform to this level then not only will be catch the eye of some of the bigger teams, but he may even persuade Ferrari to take him out of the Marussia and put him in their car in place of Felipe Massa.
Of course, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. It’s still far too early to proclaim that Bianchi is a world champion waiting to happen. It’s impossible to take two races as an accurate barometer of just how high his ultimate potential is. He’s certainly a blindingly quick driver who has been blessed with natural talent, but it will take the best part of a season (and maybe longer) before we find out if Bianchi can firstly maintain his blistering level of performance, and then show that he is capable of driving in a top team.
However, if Bianchi can build on his incredible start to his Grand Prix career and continue to put in the performances that have caught the eye of so many people so far this season, then it’s safe to say that this is one young Frenchman who has an extremely exciting future ahead of him.