The championship tussle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will take a back seat at the Hungarian Grand Prix this weekend, with Formula One still coming to terms with the death of Jules Bianchi.
The 25-year-old Bianchi died in a hospital in his hometown of Nice on Friday from injuries sustained in a head-on crash during the Japanese GP last October.
The outpouring of sympathy and support for Bianchi’s family reflected just how popular he was. He was also highly rated, and made enough of an impression in his 34 GPs for many observers to predict he would be a future star. Bianchi had been expected to replace Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari.
Hamilton, Rosberg, Brazilian driver Felipe Massa and French driver Romain Grosjean attended Bianchi’s funeral at the Sainte Reparate Cathedral in Nice on Tuesday, along with four-time F1 champions Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel and FIA president Jean Todt.
“Saying goodbye to Jules was incredibly hard for everyone,” Hamilton 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.”
Nice is about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the track where Bianchi sealed the best performance of his career. Driving for Marussia — now known as Manor Marussia — he finished in ninth place at the Monaco Grand Prix last year and gave the unheralded team its first points in F1.
Bianchi made his GP debut for Marussia in 2013. The previous year, he drove for the Force India team in several practice sessions.
“We had the pleasure of working with Jules during 2012 and he left a strong impression on everyone,” Force India team principal Vijay Mallya said. “An outstanding young man and a tremendous talent who was destined for great things in Formula One. The world has lost a true racer and we have all lost a friend.”
Bianchi’s accident occurred at the end of the race at the Suzuka circuit. In rainy, gloomy conditions, his car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who crashed one lap earlier.
The 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 them continuing in dim light conditions.
“Now our sport embarks on a tough road ahead,” Hamilton said. “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.”
Governing body FIA will retire the number 17 — Bianchi’s racing car number last year — in his honor, and it will be an emotional weekend at the Hungaroring circuit.
“I will be carrying Jules with me in my prayers and thoughts, not only this race but for the rest of my driving days,” Hamilton said. “I know he’d want us to race hard as he did, and so I will.”
With his win three weeks ago at the British GP, Hamilton extended his lead over Rosberg to 17 points — a morale booster after Rosberg had won three of the past four races heading to Silverstone.
It seems increasingly likely that the F1 championship will be won by one of the Mercedes drivers, who have won eight of nine races so far, with five wins for Hamilton.
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel — who drove brilliantly to win the Malaysian GP in the second race of the season — is already lagging 59 points behind Hamilton in third place.
McLaren, meanwhile, must stop the decline.
Despite two world champions in Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, the team has only five points so far as it struggles with new Honda engines. At the British Grand Prix three weeks ago, Alonso forced Button out of his home race.