By Alan Baldwin
MONACO (Reuters) - Jules Bianchi's stunning race into the points with tiny Marussia at the Monaco Grand Prix could be the start of something big for the French Formula One driver, according to Ferrari's Fernando Alonso.
The Spaniard, who started his own F1 career with now-defunct minnows Minardi, is a friend and traveling companion of Bianchi who is also under contract to Ferrari as part of their young driver academy.
"We spend a lot of time together in Maranello, we play football, we go cycling, we travel together on the same plane for some races," he told reporters after Bianchi finished eighth on the track and ninth after a penalty was taken into account.
"He’s a friend and I’m extremely happy for him and very proud of what his result will mean for him in his career. I have no doubt it will be a good career," continued double world champion Alonso.
"Hopefully with this result he can have a more competitive car next year and show his talent even more."
The points, in a showcase race watched by many millions around the world, were cash-starved Marussia's first in more than four years of trying and propelled the Ferrari-powered team to ninth in the constructors' standings, ahead of Ferrari-powered Sauber.
Marussia team principal John Booth agreed that Bianchi was destined for a bigger stage.
"I think he’s ready to go now. If they (Ferrari) need him, I think he’s ready to go," he told Reuters. "I think he’s got a long career in F1. Absolute top driver."
Bianchi's race was all the more impressive because he started on the back row of the grid after a penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change.
He gained five places at the start but then had to fight back from two stop/go penalties, the second imposed for serving the first during the safety car period.
The Frenchman was helped by retirements and crashes ahead of him but he still finished ahead of Ferrari's 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren's highly-rated Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen.
To cap it all, he pulled off a daring overtake of Caterham's Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi - a man renowned for his own crowd-pleasing passes - around the tight Rascasse corner.
Bianchi said he was thrilled for the team.
"It was not an easy race; there were some enjoyable highs along the way, but also a couple of concerning moments too. What matters at the end is that we got there and we can savor the highlights for a long time to come," he said.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)