NICE, July 21- Formula One turned out in force on Tuesday to pay its last respects to Jules Bianchi at the 25-year-old French driver’s funeral in his hometown of Nice.
World champion Lewis Hamilton and many of Bianchi’s pitlane colleagues joined family and friends of the talented young Marussia driver who died in Nice on Friday, nine months after his devastating accident at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Two giant portraits of Bianchi in full racing gear adorned the walls either side of the cathedral’s main entrance.
His coffin, with his No 17 helmet resting on it, was carried from the hearse into the cathedral by a group of young drivers, described by Father Sylvain Brison as Bianchi’s “racing brothers”.
With The Eagles’ haunting 1970s anthem “Hotel California” playing in the background, the coffin was carried up the cathedral’s central aisle.
Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, who had made the short trip from their homes in Monaco, as well as Jean Todt, head of F1’s governing body, the FIA, and the French Sports Minister Thierry Braillard, were in attendance for what Bianchi’s parents had requested was to be an intimate farewell to their son.
“Jules’ death is deeply unjust,” Father Brison told the mourners in the Sainte-Reparate Cathedral situated in Nice’s historic old town.
“He was happy, because he had turned his dream into reality.”
F1 “was his life, his vocation. He was a champion blessed with a rare talent, as well as being a young man whose stature was as high as the depth of his humility”.
He concluded the service by saying: “Jules never managed to make it on to the Formula One podium, and so I ask you to applaud him now,” which the emotional gathering, both inside and outside the cathedral, duly did for several minutes.
The service ended with the playing of the tender 1980s classic hit “Mistral Gagnant” by French singer Renaud.
– Ferrari beckoned –
F1 drivers Jean-Eric Vergne (C-R) and Felipe Massa (C-L) pay their respects along with other friends and relatives of Jules Bianchi outside the Sainte Reparate cathedral in Nice on July 21, 2015. PHOTO/AFP
Sebastian Vettel, the four-time former world champion, helped carry the coffin out of the cathedral in a poignant reminder that if fate had not cruelly intervened Bianchi would have joined the German as Kimi Raikkonen’s replacement at Ferrari next season.
Bianchi was the first Formula One driver to die as a result of a racing accident since triple world champion Ayrton Senna in San Marino in 1994.
And Senna’s arch-rival, Alain Prost, was among the mourners saying goodbye to Bianchi as were Romain Grosjean, Felipe Massa and Olivier Panis.
Bianchi suffered a traumatic brain injury when his car careered off the rain-drenched Suzuka circuit during the Japanese Grand Prix on October 5 and smashed into a recovery truck at around 200 kilometres (125 miles) an hour.
He had been fighting for his life since under controlled medical conditions in a Nice hospital.
Born in Nice in 1989 to Italian parents, Bianchi had racing in his blood.
His father Philippe was a go-kart specialist. His grandfather Mauro had been a well known Formula Three and endurance driver in the 1960s. His great-uncle Lucien competed in 17 Grands Prix before he was killed in a crash in 1969 at the age of 34.
After a spell at Ferrari’s drivers’ academy Bianchi joined Marussia in 2013 and competed in 34 Grands Prix, notching two world championship points — still the team’s best result.
Since the accident new measures have been introduced to force drivers to slow down for accidents, including a ‘virtual safety car’.
The FIA has announced that in Bianchi’s honour it had retired his number 17 car.