x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A peak practice for Force India's third driver Bianchi

Frenchman takes another step along F1 path by running a Force India car during practice for the Chinese Grand Prix, writes Gary Meenaghan from Shanghai.

Jules Bianchi, left, the Force India third driver, is confident he can do a job for the team if he is required to take over in one of the two race cars at any stage during the Formula One season.
Jules Bianchi, left, the Force India third driver, is confident he can do a job for the team if he is required to take over in one of the two race cars at any stage during the Formula One season.

Jet lag is as prevalent in a Formula One paddock as sunglasses and sycophancy, yet for Jules Bianchi, as he adapts to another time zone at this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, the lines between his reality and his dreams have grown evermore distorted.

Almost since the day the Frenchman was born 22 years ago into a family of strong motorsport heritage, Bianchi has been fantasising about sitting behind the wheel of an F1 car on a grand prix weekend.

Now his dream has come true as he took part in his first free practice session, the latest step in his quest to emulate the achievement of his grand-uncle Lucien, who competed in the top tier of the sport in the 1960s.

When Lucien was killed in an accident during testing for the 1969 Le Mans, his grandfather Mauro - who had also raced professionally - forbade his father, Philippe, from partaking seriously in racing. Jules remembers staring at sepia-tinged photos of his grandfather and granduncle while growing up and conceded to The National "motorsport was always in my head, all of the time".

"It is something special because, as long as I can remember, my family have been involved in motorsport," he said. "The only one of the family who missed that was my father because after all the accidents we had in the family it was quite difficult for him to say he wanted to race, as well. But he owned a karting track, so this helped me when I was young as I would be able to practice a lot."

By the time Jules was able to drive karts, he was racing on his father's track in southern France and now it is his photo that hangs on the wall. At the Jean-Viel Circuit, a young smiling French boy stands next to Michael Schumacher, the German having stopped off on his way to the Monaco Grand Prix.

This weekend, Bianchi shared the track at Shanghai International Circuit with the seven-time world champion.

Having signed on as a reserve driver with Force India, the rookie took part in his first free practice, and, although drizzling rain ruined any hopes he had of clocking up a substantial number of laps, he stepped out of the car with the sense of a job well done.

"It was my first-ever practice session in F1 and my first time driving the Shanghai circuit, so there was quite a lot to learn," Bianchi said. "Because of conditions, we didn't do many laps and I was not on the limit because there was not much grip. But while it is hard to say I am happy, the target was to run the car, familiarise myself with it and stay on track, and we did that. Overall, I have to be pleased."

Bianchi, who as a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy ran for the Italians at last November's Young Driver Test at Yas Marina Circuit, said free practice was the natural next step in his development.

"The Abu Dhabi experience was very important because without in-season testing it was so important to be involved and it will help me in the future. Practice is always a good experience and to get to drive in F1, especially now in tricky conditions, is a positive."

If he is to eventually muscle his way into Force India's race line-up, Bianchi will need to dislodge either Paul di Resta or Nico Hulkenberg, a scenario he acknowledges is unlikely to happen this season.

Hulkenberg, who was the team's reserve last year, managed to make the step for 2012, but he was aided by a controversial court case involving Adrian Sutil, the German driver who represented the team last season.

Hulkenberg stopped short of offering advice to his understudy, but insists Bianchi's presence has not made him fearful for his seat. "Not at all," he said. "I'm always on my toes."

He added: "First practice offers a good opportunity for young drivers to get experience and we are one of the teams - Williams are another - who give young drivers track time, which is much appreciated by guys like me and Jules. It's a very positive thing, but it's really just about getting the feel for the car and a race weekend under your belt."

The last time Bianchi drove an F1 car was during February's pre-season testing in Jerez. But, despite enjoying a fruitful first day, his week will be remembered for a minor shunt that saw him collide with a tyre wall after two laps on his second outing. The car damage was not severe, but a lack of spare parts resulted in the team failing to finish the day's running.

Bianchi, 22, insists the small mistake has been forgotten. "Now when I think back I only remember the first day, which was really good," he said.

Engineers at the England-based marque have been impressed by his absolute professionalism since. Yet ahead of yesterday's practice session he spoke only of the importance of running error-free, doing "a good job for the team" and focusing not on the times, but understanding the car.

When Bianchi was announced as a driver for Vijay Mallya's marque, the Indian team principal cited his new recruit's pedigree in GP2.

Half of the 24 drivers on this year's grid - including fellow Ferrari Academy member Sergio Perez, who finished second at the Malaysian Grand Prix last month - graduated from F1's feeder series.

Likewise, Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Gutierrez, Sam Bird and Giedo van der Garde all raced GP2 last year and this season hold reserve roles in F1, while Romain Grosjean and Charles Pic secured race seats with Lotus and Marussia. Bianchi knows competition is fierce.

"We are a good generation and it is nice to have them here because they are very good drivers," he said. "It's great to see them pushing as well, trying to get a place on the grid, but it means it's going to be tough.

"Reaching F1 is my big dream; to be on the grid, I have had this dream all my life. I will try to be there next year and that is why I am working so hard and doing my best for the team, but I don't have to do it so quickly. I think I am ready, but I still have to learn many things. Formula One is not new to me; I have already driven the car. But to be part of a team and to race in F1 are two different things."

Recent years have shown F1 teams to be more likely to call on experience than exuberance when it comes to filling an unforeseen void. When Robert Kubica was ruled out of the 2011 season following a rally accident, Renault did not call upon one of their countless reserve drivers, but rather Nick Heidfeld, the veteran German. Likewise, last summer, when Sauber's Perez suffered a concussion in Monaco and missed the Canadian Grand Prix, it was not Gutierrez who got the call, but Pedro de la Rosa, 40.

Bianchi said he did not seek assurances from his new team and would never wish an accident upon anyone, but added he was confident he would be given a chance if the opportunity arose.

"This is F1 and sometimes this kind of thing happens," he said of young reserves being overlooked. "But I don't think it will happen here because Force India is a serious team and I can trust in them. I just have to prove that I can do it, and as the third driver I know that I can."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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