Two days after attending the funeral of their colleague Jules Bianchi, Formula One’s leading drivers gather again Thursday to begin preparations for this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, the 10th race of a season dominated by Mercedes and their dueling duo of defending champion Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Nico Rosberg.
Following emotional scenes in Nice, where Frenchman Bianchi was laid to rest after his death last Friday from injuries suffered in a collision with a recovery vehicle at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, the mood in the paddock at the Hungaroring circuit, north of Hungary’s capital city, is likely to be more subdued than usual on the eve of F1’s mid-season ‘summer’ break. Both Briton Hamilton and German Rosberg, as well as Rosberg’s compatriot four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, were among many well-known Formula One personalities who attended Bianchi’s funeral, an occasion that marked the first death of an F1 driver as a result of a racing accident since Brazilian Ayrton Senna in 1994. Bianchi was tipped to become a Ferrari driver and enjoy an outstanding career.
Hamilton, who leads Rosberg by 17 points in this year’s title race, is in pursuit of his third title, but made clear this week he will have much more on his mind as he seeks to extend that advantage on a sun baked, tight and demanding track where he has traditionally shone in past seasons.
“Saying goodbye to Jules was incredibly hard for everyone,” he said. “For myself, I wished I had known him better. But from what I knew of him, he was a kind heart with a great spirit and a bright future… Now our sport embarks on a tough road ahead,” he added, in quotes attributed to him in a news release by Mercedes. “We have made great progress for safety thus far and I know that the FIA will continue to make steps forward to improve even further.”
Since Bianchi, 25, lost control of his car in torrential rain at the Suzuka circuit and crashed last October, the sport has reviewed many of its safety procedures. Most notably with the introduction of a ‘virtual’ Safety Car scenario to try and avoid any repeat. The ruling body, the International Motoring Federation (FIA) has also retired number 17, Bianchi’s racing number.
Hamilton added: “I will carry Jules with me in my prayers and thoughts, not only in this race, but for the rest of my driving days. I know he’d want us to race hard, as he did, and will.” Rosberg, winner of three out of four races before the British Grand Prix earlier this month, echoed his team-mate’s thoughts.
“It has been a very emotional week,” he said. “The drivers paid our final respects to Jules and said farewell. He was a very talented driver and a good guy. My thoughts in these days are with his family and close friends. Everyone will be sharing the same feelings in the paddock this week, but we must race on and race hard for Jules as he would have wanted to be doing himself.”
Much focus this weekend will be on the emotional and mental stability of the drivers who have appeared most affected by Bianchi’s death as Ferrari plan to decorate their garage in a visual tribute to the young driver they were grooming for stardom. Memories will be all around them as they meet, talk, drive and race and they will almost certainly be upset during the minute’s silence planned to be held on Sunday 15 minutes before the start of the race.
Mercedes, a team that has experienced more tragedy than most in the marque’s long history in motor sport, insist they will help in the ongoing campaign for improved safety in Formula One. “My first thoughts go to the family and friends of Jules — the loss of a child is something for which there are no words — and on behalf of the team I send them strength for the days and weeks ahead,” said team boss Toto Wolff.
“We will honour his memory by continuing to improve the safety of the drivers, team members, circuit workers and spectators under the leadership of the FIA.”