LONDON (Reuters) - Jules Bianchi was being lined up by Ferrari as the man to replace Kimi Raikkonen before the Frenchman’s crash in Japan last October, according to the team’s former chairman Luca di Montezemolo.
Bianchi, 25, who died in hospital in Nice on Friday nine months after his shocking accident and without regaining consciousness, had come through Ferrari’s driver academy and maintained close ties with Maranello.
His funeral will be in Nice’s Sainte Reparate Cathedral on Tuesday.
“Jules was one of us,” Montezemolo told Sky Sports Italia. “He was part of the Ferrari family and the driver we had chosen for the future, once the collaboration with Raikkonen was finished.”
Raikkonen, the Finn who won the 2007 world championship with Ferrari, returned to the Italian team for the 2014 season on a two-year contract that expires at the end of this year.
Former Ferrari principal Stefano Domenicali confirmed separately to Sky that the team had big plans for Bianchi, who joined Ferrari’s academy in 2009 and was a test driver for the team.
“Jules was always at Maranello,” said the Italian. “Every day he came to the factory to grow and nurture his dream of driving for Ferrari.
“Our idea was that, after Marussia, he should go to another team to grow and be ready for the big leap. That is what we planned some years ago. But unfortunately fate took him away.”
Bianchi had made his F1 debut with Ferrari-powered Marussia in 2013, scoring that team’s first and to date only points in Monaco last year when he finished ninth.
He had been tipped for a move to Ferrari-powered Sauber, the team that also served as a springboard to Ferrari for Brazilian Felipe Massa, this year as part of his career development.
Only days before his crash at Suzuka, Bianchi had spoken about his readiness to race for Ferrari.
“He was a first class lad, private, quick, polite, extremely devoted to Ferrari and with a sure future,” said Montezemolo.
“A bitter destiny has carried him away, leaving us with a huge emptiness,” he added.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Amlan Chakraborty