In a tribute written for Italy's Gazzetto dello Sport, the former Ferrari chairman revealed that Bianchi had been earmarked to eventually replace Kimi Raikkonen. "Jules Bianchi was one of us," wrote Montezemolo. "He was a member of the Ferrari family and was the racing driver we had chosen for the future, once the collaboration with Kimi Raikkonen came to an end."
The news may come as something of a surprise, but doesn't come entirely out of left field. Bianchi had been part of the Ferrari Driver Academy development program. He rose up through the ranks of the feeder formulae largely with ART Grand Prix, the team run by Nicholas Todt, son of the former Ferrari chief and FIA president. He served as a test driver for the Scuderia in 2011, and scored his first and only F1 championship points driving a Ferrari-powered Marussia at the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix. He stood in for Kimi at Ferrari during a test session at Silverstone (where he was pictured above), but tragically crashed during the Japanese Grand Prix, and finally succumbing over this past weekend to the injuries he sustained in the collision nine months prior.
Bianchi "would be the one driving for Ferrari after the experience in GP2 and after some fine performances in F1 and in some tests that had our technicians very impressed," wrote Montezemolo. "A bitter destiny has instead taken him away from us, leaving an indelible mark and a great pain inside us." Bianchi is scheduled to be interred on Tuesday in the French Riviera city of Nice, just down the coast from where he made his mark last year. And, in a touching tribute, the FIA has said it will retire the number 17 from the F1 World Championship.
The tragic loss leaves Ferrari searching for another driver to replace Raikkonen. The Finnish driver won the championship for Maranello in 2007, was shown the door in 2010, returned to F1 with Lotus in 2012, but has struggled to find his form again. Last season he finished a lamentable twelfth, but has shown better form this season with a second-place finish in Bahrain to sit fifth in the standings. Now 35 years old, Kimi is one of the older drivers on the grid. Recent rumors have suggested the team is lining up fellow Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas (currently at Williams) to take Raikkonen's place. We'll sadly never know, however, if Bianchi would have proven the better choice.