Today the Sahara Force India team confirmed the story which we first ran during the Brazil GP weekend: that Jules Bianchi will become its third driver.
The 22 year old Frenchman will have the opportunity to drive on at least nine Grand Prix weekends in the Friday morning practice session.
He will join a small but growing number of young drivers getting some regular track time on Fridays, including Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Lotus’ Jerome D’Ambrosio. Caterham are likely to have someone in that role and Marussia has also made use of the Friday morning opportunity too.
It’s the right move for Bianchi, as there were no opportunities with the current testing restrictions to get seat time at Ferrari, where the Frenchman, a protege of Nicolas Todt, has been reserve driver. With two disappointing campaigns behind him in GP2, and no F1 race seat arising from that, Todt needed to keep his boy’s career moving forward and this answers that need.
Force India have made excellent use of the Friday slot in the last two years, blooding Paul di Resta in 2010 ahead of a race debut in 2011 and assessing Nico Hulkenberg last season, which led to a race seat this year. They have a proven track record at it.
These two stories prove the value of the Friday driver opportunity. After all, going further back, both Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel started their F1 careers as Friday drivers.
On the face of it there’s no reason for Force India’s race driver line up to change again for a few years with two hungry, capable drivers. But both could be candidates for a Mercedes seat if Michael Schumacher retires at the end of 2012 and Force India can measure Bianchi against the race drivers, giving them an option. It also makes him more attractive to other F1 teams if they find themselves looking for a “ready to go” driver, as happens sometimes.
“I’m obviously excited to join Sahara Force India and the chance to get track time during race weekends is an important step for me,” said Bianchi. “Being regularly in a current car is the best way to learn quickly and I hope it will put me in a strong position to one day move into a race seat. The next few months will be really exciting as I get to know the team, see how they work, and prepare for my time in the car. I would like to thank everyone for believing in me and especially Sahara Force India for giving me this great opportunity.”
Importantly, Bianchi will remain part of the Ferrari Driver Academy programme, along with Sauber’s Sergio Perez. Meanwhile Ferrari is leaning more heavily on Davide Rigon as a result of Bianchi’s move to Force India.
“As for Davide Rigon, he has recently extended his relationship with the Scuderia: the driver from Venice will be on call for the team for all racing and promotional activities also for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.”