When it comes to Formula One, I am often asked whether there is any particular team or driver that I root for. I almost always say no, because if someone impresses me on the track, they impress me, regardless of who they are or who they represent. In recent years, however, one or two people have come to know that there is a team to which I pledge a rapidly growing allegiance. They might not get the same TV coverage that Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull do as the teams at the very top of the sport, but I believe that their true racing spirit and all that they’ve had to endure through the past six and a half seasons should have earned them more respect than even the biggest F1 titans.
Manor Racing entered Formula One as Virgin Racing, following significant investment from Sir Richard Branson, at the start of the 2010 season. They accompanied two other new teams, Hispania Racing and Lotus Racing, the latter an effort from a Malaysian consortium making use of the famous Lotus name (which had last appeared in 1994) into the sport. Their debut weekend at the Bahrain Grand Prix wasn’t exactly plain sailing. Brazilian rookie Lucas di Grassi retired after only two laps due to a hydraulic failure – the hydraulics on the team’s VR-01 car would give the team persistent headaches throughout the season – and his German team-mate Timo Glock was out after 16 when he lost two of his gears and found it impossible to continue. These reliability issues helped consign the team to 11th of 11 teams in the 2010 Constructors’ Championship, just behind the lucrative 10th place that can make or break a team financially. At the end of that season, however, I believed two things. Firstly, that the VR-01 was the coolest Formula One car I’d ever seen, and secondly that better things would come their way in the future.
Over the next couple of seasons, Glock and his respective team-mates, the Belgian Jerome d’Ambrosio in 2011 and the Frenchman Charles Pic in 2012, raced boldly on in the quest to beat their rivals. By now the team was competing under the Marussia name, denoting the involvement of a Russian sports car manufacturer, and they were becoming gradually stronger as their immediate rivals – Hispania and Lotus/Caterham – faltered. 2013 marked the first time in the team’s short history that Glock was not a race driver, the seats in their red and black cars being taken by Britain’s Max Chilton and France’s Jules Bianchi. The latter driver was a very late signing, having just missed out on a Force India drive shortly beforehand, and this followed the collapse of a deal with Marussia’s original choice, Luiz Razia, when his sponsorship money disappeared. At the end of that year, in Brazil, Chilton became the first rookie driver ever to finish all of the races in their debut season, crossing the line 19 times out of a possible 19. Bianchi also impressed greatly, and he would take the team to even greater heights in 2014 – a season that would also see Marussia face their darkest hour.
On 25 May, Jules raced hard through 78 laps of the iconic Monaco street circuit to take ninth position and two points that would turn out to be vital for the team’s subsequent survival – former sporting director Graeme Lowdon admitted in 2015 that they would not have been around to race that year were it not for the financial windfall that the points bought to them. It was a display that confirmed Bianchi was destined to be a future champion, and in my opinion it is one of the greatest non-race-winning performances I have ever seen. At the following race, the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, the team were brought back down to Earth with a bump when their two drivers collided on the first lap, but despite this setback the team seemed to still be going from strength to strength. Then came a fateful race day at Suzuka, Japan, on 5 October 2014. I was one of the millions who witnessed the aftermath of the terrible accident that would ultimately rob the world of one of its brightest new motor racing talents, and when it became apparent that Jules’ condition was serious I honestly could not believe that this could still happen in an age of incredibly advanced safety standards. Sadly, however, it had happened, and I was infinitely more shocked when Jules passed away due to his injuries on 17 July last year.
All new Formula One teams have to overcome numerous hurdles if they want a long-term future in the sport. There are the obstacles associated with finance that Manor themselves had to overcome shortly after Jules’ accident, leading to them reverting to the name that founder John Booth had originally given his racing team in 1990 and using a year-old car and engine in 2015, and then there’s the battle to be competitive on track to fulfil every objective and make every hour of hard work from every member of the team viable. But alongside these, Manor have had to face the biggest tragedy of all in the loss of one of their own. In the face of this adversity they pressed on, more determined than ever under the most brilliant leadership from Booth and Lowdon and fuelled by the aforementioned pure racing spirit that I have detected and admired since their earliest days. Their perseverance has been rewarded, with new investment and new personnel both reaping rewards in 2016. The MRT05 is evidently Manor’s best car yet, and it was piloted to its first point since Monaco 2014 by the promising Pascal Wehrlein in Austria. His team-mates Rio Haryanto and Esteban Ocon have both also impressed me thus far, and the entire operation has continued to increase my admiration to ever higher levels. They came, they saw, they were devastasted, they continued, and I know they know that they can conquer. And aside from that, their cars look bloody cool. Manor Racing, rear-grid minnows? Not so, as for so many reasons – in my eyes at least – they are the mightiest team of all.