BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Setting aside their on-track rivalries, Formula One drivers paid a solemn homage to Jules Bianchi at the Hungarian Grand Prix on Thursday.
Bianchi’s death last Friday, from head injuries last October in a head-on crash at the Japanese GP, shocked F1. It was the first race-related driver death since 1994, when Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger died at the San Marino GP.
It also unified the paddock at the Hungaroring, with drivers pausing to remember a highly skilled, audacious driver whose promising career ended at the age of 25.
Fernando Alonso knew him well, from his time at Ferrari, where Bianchi progressed through the ranks as a test driver.
“Obviously we (spent) a lot of time together outside the track. I take those memories,” Alonso said, his eyes watering as he spoke in the McLaren motorhome. “I will always have him in my heart … We shared the track together and he’s not (here) anymore.”
Alonso, a two-time F1 champion, developed a tight bond with the up-and-coming Bianchi.
“I spent time with him for three years. We did some training camps together, some good rides on the bicycle, football matches, playing cards,” he said, lowering his head slowly as he recalled fond times. “I spent one week in Lanzarote training camp in 2012, we were roommates. Very strong feeling now, a very sad moment.”
French driver Romain Grosjean and Felipe Massa, who both attended the funeral in Bianchi’s hometown of Nice on Tuesday, spoke with heartfelt emotion.
“It was so difficult to be there in the church, to understand what’s happened. So sad,” said Massa, who helped to carry Bianchi’s coffin. “I’m sure he’s looking at us, from whatever place he is. He was an amazing boy and a fantastic driver.”
Bianchi’s accident occurred at the end of the race at the Suzuka circuit. In rainy, gloomy conditions, Bianchi’s car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who crashed in the same spot one lap earlier.
Massa had a near escape from death in 2009 when he sustained life-threatening head injuries at the Hungaroring. He has managed to banish dark memories of that incident and has no problems racing here.
“I don’t think, ‘I had my accident in this place,'” Massa said. “When I’m driving I don’t know anything … You just think about your work.”
Bianchi’s accident prompted F1 to alter its rules, allowing a “virtual safety car” in which stewards can neutralize a race, forcing all cars to proceed slowly into the pit lane rather than continuing to lap the circuit. The start times of some races were also moved forward to avoid darkening conditions.
It has also prompted ongoing debate as to whether modifications should be made to the cars, notably closed cockpits in order to nullify the threat of head injuries.
“I’m not completely against (closed cockpits), improving safety in that area,” Massa said.
Grosjean, his face tight with pain, could not choose when asked his favorite memory of his close friend because “I have too many,” before adding that Sunday’s race — the 10th of a season almost totally dominated by Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg — will be “for Jules as well.”
Mexican driver Sergio Perez is 25 years old, and like Bianchi he came through the Ferrari academy. He says that rivalry in sport should never go too far.
“As drivers we share many moments. Sometimes we’re not the best friends but we do the same thing, all of us,” said Perez, who drives for Force India. “Not to see him ever again it really shocks you. I was talking to his father and it’s very difficult for his whole family. His family is our family now and he will stay with us forever.”
Driving for Marussia — now known as Manor Marussia — Bianchi finished in ninth place at the Monaco Grand Prix last year and gave the unheralded team its first points in F1. The encouraging result also helped the team attract new backing and stay in F1, after going into administration and missing the last three races of 2014.
“The difference that Jules made last year in Monaco is absolutely key to us still being here, I don’t there’s a single member of the team who underestimates everything he did,” said Will Stevens, a British driver for Manor Marussia who knew Bianchi from junior kart racing. “We all need to carry on racing, and I’m sure Jules would want that.”
Although delicately poised, the title race remains an internal tussle at Mercedes, with Hamilton leading Rosberg by 17 points. They both attended Bianchi’s funeral.
“Of course it remains a tough period. But over the years as a racing driver I’ve learned that when the visor goes down, I put all those thoughts to the side and go for it,” Rosberg said. “It’s very sad, but on track the battle has to continue and the battle will continue.”
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