Jennie Gow shares her memories of Jules Bianchi, Formula 1’s bright young star whose death has left the world of motorsport in mourning.
I’m sat in the garden and the birds are tweeting. A squirrel makes its way up a tree. My hyacinth plant looks stunning as the bright pink flowers sway in the breeze. It seems almost harsh that life continues relentlessly even though I know that, in Nice right now, a group of brave and heartbroken family and friends gather to pay their final respects to a man who has left us too soon.
I could lament about how spectacular Jules Bianchi was on the track and list his many amazing accomplishments. However, those are easy to read about and one can readily check his Wikipedia page to see what he achieved in his racing career.
So, instead, I hope you don’t mind if I share a few of my memories of a very special guy.
I first got to know Jules when he was a reserve driver for Force India. It was my first full season in F1 and, as well as my duties for the BBC, I also presented SFITV – the Force India TV Show – which meant every now and then I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon or a day with the team. At the time, Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil were their drivers and Ferrari had loaned Jules to Force India so that he could drive on nine Friday morning practice sessions.
Jules was also competing in World Series by Renault that year, so he wasn’t at every race weekend, but one of my fondest memories of the ever-smiling Jules was in Hungary 2012. We wanted to do something a little different with him as he had some time ahead of the race weekend and, along with my producer at the time – Jason Swales – we arranged to learn more about Jules by playing squash with him (of course!)
Now, I make no bones about it, Jules – at the tender age of 22 and working hard to get a full time seat in F1 – was always going to run me ragged on a squash court, especially as I’d never played before. We laughed our way through the interview and the ‘match’. After about 5 minutes I could hardly breathe. Jules smiled at me and said I’d done well for my first attempt. I hadn’t done anything, but Jules was such a complete gentleman, he made me believe that maybe I was good enough to start playing against him on a more regular basis.
This was an age before selfies but, thankfully, Jason took a shot of Jules and me (me looking shattered after our squash session). It’s a picture that hangs proudly on the wall in my house and that, over the past nine months, I have found myself looking at on a regular basis.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2013 and it looked as if Jules might miss out on one of the precious seats in F1. However, the deal with Luiz Razia fell through just as testing was getting under way and so, all of a sudden, the Ferrari-powered Marussia team had a spare seat. Jules was the perfect person.
I remember talking to him in Melbourne at the start of the season and I don’t think he could really believe he was just about to climb into an F1 car and go racing. His smile was dazzling and he spoke in his beautiful French accent. I can still hear him today.
“I’m just going to go out there and do my best”, he told me.
“I’m really looking forward to driving for Marussia and seeing what I can do.”
15th was what he could do, which was pretty bloomin’ impressive seeing as he and the team were still getting to know each other, not to mention the short amount of time they had had to prepare.
THAT smile was infectious. Jules was so softly-spoken but, when it came to racing, there was nothing gentle about his style on circuit. Like so many racers, when he put his visor down, he was a different person.
Just remembering THAT move in Monaco, when he overtook Kamui Kobayashi into Rascasse, he gave him no quarter and battled with all his heart and soul to get those precious points – the first for Jules and for Marussia. What a legacy to leave. Something very special happened that day. One could say the team is only here today because of those points. Jules was so happy. It was his home race, just a few miles from where he had grown up; the track where his great-uncle Lucien had achieved his best-ever finish. It was to become the defining moment in his career. There were many happy tears shed in the paddock that day for what Jules and that little Marussia team had achieved. There would have been so many more had we known what was to follow.
The final time I ever interviewed Jules was, as ever, alongside my paddock buddy Will Buxton. It is normal for us to stand together in the pen and speak to drivers after they have finished a session. It was the end of qualifying on what started as a beautiful day in Suzuka. We all knew a storm was on its way. I remember being stood in my shorts and then, all of a sudden, the heavens opened. Very kindly our BBC Commentator for the day brought me his jacket to wear and I took shelter, huddled under a colleague’s umbrella.
Jules was one of the first to come to speak to Will and I. He’d beaten his team mate Max Chilton again, and was pretty happy with the session. But what sticks with me is him laughing at Will as we got absolutely soaked, and him telling me it was my fault for wearing shorts.
That was the last time I spoke to Jules. We might have said hi to each other on race day, I don’t remember. Jules was the sort of person that always said hello and smiled at you in the paddock. That weekend, we spent a lot of time at the Marussia hospitality unit. I’m still not sure why we based ourselves there but, in retrospect, I’m glad we did. Marussia may be a small team but they are one of the friendliest. It’s more like a family than some of the bigger teams and, that weekend, they looked out for us and our little team too.
I watched the race from the FIA garage in the pit lane. I still remember looking at the timing screen and thinking that something wasn’t right. Then came the horrible realisation that something was seriously wrong. It still makes my heart ache to think of that day, and the next nine months that followed.
From the lows of missing out on the WSR title, to the elation of getting a drive and THOSE points in Monaco, the one thing that I will always remember about Jules is THAT smile. It wasn’t a dazzle to get attention, it was a genuine expression of warmth because this was a guy who was living the dream. He was generous in spirit and a real gentleman. Jules was the guy who always had a moment to speak to you, smile at you… to include you in his world. I know he will never be forgotten and his legacy in F1 will live on forever. But I will miss seeing that smile and hearing his voice in the paddock.
My final memory of Jules I want to share with you is of him trying to pick a song for our Formation Lap on BBC 5 Live. We were in Italy, in his drivers’ room. His laptop was open on top of his massage bed and he was playing different tracks, asking what I liked. The song he ended up picking was ‘Prayer in C’ by Robin Shultz – at least, that’s the version we went with. The song is actually by Lily Wood and The Prick but, after I’d explained what that meant in English, we were laughing so much that we had to just go with the remix version!
I will always listen to that song and think of Jules. Rest in peace, my friend.