Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own;
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow, do thy worst, for I have lived today.
John Dryden, translating Horace, Odes, Book III, Ode 29
Last night, Jules Bianchi died after nine months in a coma. You might have heard of him for the first time today, through the news stories about him. Perhaps you haven’t heard of him at all. Yet Jules Bianchi was one of the best drivers in the world – a racer in Formula 1. He never woke up from the coma he fell into last October, following a horrific crash in a Grand Prix. He was the first driver to die racing in Formula 1 since arguably the best of all time, Ayrton Senna, back in 1994. Jules was 25 years old.
Formula 1 is a dangerous sport. The speeds, the reliance on the reliability of technology, even the weather can all lead to accidents. The safety statistics from the 1970s are shocking. Following the death of Roland Ratzenberger in 1994’s San Marino qualifying, and Senna’s death during the race the following day, the sport has taken every precaution, exercised every control and strived for safety at every turn. And for twenty years, the sport was the most secure it has ever been. We were reminded not to take the risks for granted when a small mistake, coupled with a mixture of unlucky circumstances, ended in tragedy.
I never really know what to say in these situations, but in this case I wanted to say something. I cried this morning when I saw this news, which seems utterly ridiculous as I didn’t know him. Although I suppose we do know these people – celebrities, musicians, sports stars – to a certain extent: in Jules’ case, F1 fans watched him race, we listened to his interviews, we saw him smile. We knew he had been through the Ferrari driver academy, and was earmarked for a drive there in future – the most revered team on the grid, with the longest history in the sport. We saw him finish in ninth place at Monaco in a Marussia, a car that regularly started 24th – last – on the grid. It was hailed as the beginning of a long, successful career in the sport; it was the only points the team and driver ever scored.
Because of this, as well as being the loss of a motivated, talented, beautiful, well-liked young man, we feel the loss of so much potential – a future of race wins and Championships, a name in the history books for the very best of reasons, and everything else outside motorsport – starting a family, building a home… quite simply, growing older.
Bianchi’s accident came almost a year after the most successful F1 driver of all time, Michael Schumacher, suffered a skiing accident that led to severe head injuries and a coma. It was a terrible, sad time for the world of motorsport, and the similarity between the injuries was frightening. The extent of Michael Schumacher’s injuries has never been made clear, but it felt like an utterly tragic twist in the most extraordinary life.
A few days ago, Jules’ father revealed that when they had talked about Schumacher’s accident, Jules had made clear that he would have difficulty living in such a way. Of course, we never think these things will happen to us, so it is easy to say so, but you can imagine it is true: for these men, seekers of adrenaline at the pinnacle of motorsport, it must be difficult to live a normal life afterwards, without further limits. Perhaps it is patronising or wrong to say so, but the outcome of each accident feels heartbreaking.
However, these men would not want us to feel sorry for them. They should be recognised and, in Jules’ case, remembered for their incredible achievements and the joy they brought and bring to others. These are two people who had a massive ambition and went for it fearlessly. Jules would have wanted more – even Schumacher with seven Championships probably wanted more; perhaps we always do. Yet despite his short life, Jules packed a lot of living into it. We should be inspired.
Now, his suffering is over; for the family who waited for nine months by his hospital bed, it will go on. The entire motorsport community is thinking of them, and we join them in mourning a tragic loss. I can only hope that one day they will have some peace.