* Marussia terminate Razia’s contract
* Frenchman Bianchi will race for the team instead (Adds detail)
By Alan Baldwin
LONDON, March 1 (Reuters) - Marussia terminated the contract of Brazilian driver Luiz Razia on Friday, less than three weeks before the start of the Formula One season, and said Frenchman Jules Bianchi would take his place at the team.
Bianchi, 23, is a highly-rated member of Ferrari’s young driver academy and was Force India reserve last year, taking part in several grand prix practice sessions.
Razia’s place, at a tail-end team who have yet to score a point after three seasons, had been cast into doubt after he missed last week’s test in Barcelona amid reports of problems with promised sponsorship payments.
The Brazilian had himself been hired as a replacement for Germany’s Timo Glock, who left by mutual agreement in January when the team - who have the smallest budget in the paddock - decided they could no longer afford to pay him and needed someone with money.
“We have found ourselves in a situation where we have had to terminate our contract with Luiz Razia,” said principal John Booth in a statement.
“Having made clear the basis on which we must operate in 2013, and given the steps we had taken to put that new structure in place, we had no alternative but to remain true to the principles which we had identified as being key to securing our long-term future.”
Well-funded Briton Max Chilton is the Cosworth-powered team’s other driver, with Marussia the only team to have a lineup consisting of two rookies.
The twist was a crushing blow for Razia, after coming so close to seeing his dream come true, but a lifeline for Bianchi after the Frenchman missed out on a Force India race seat earlier in the week.
Bianchi, whose arrival is bound to fuel speculation of Russian-registered Marussia switching to the Italian engines next year when the regulations change, said he was thrilled and excited.
“After evaluating a number of options I am very excited to have this opportunity to demonstrate that I am ready for this next step in my racing career,” he said.
“I am also very grateful to the Ferrari Driver Academy that has always supported me and has given me the possibility to mature as a racing driver enabling me to be fully prepared for this new exciting challenge.”
Marussia said Bianchi, who tested for Force India only last week when that team decided between him and Germany’s Adrian Sutil, would be in their car at the Circuit de Catalunya on Saturday and part of Sunday.
“We are very pleased to welcome Jules Bianchi to the Marussia F1 Team,” said Booth.
”Jules is a proven talent who is highly regarded within the paddock. He has been on a clear trajectory towards Formula One and has achieved some impressive performances through the various feeder formulae.
“Jules can now look forward to a very swift initiation into the Team over the course of the next two days here in Barcelona.”
Bianchi will be the fourth French driver in a field of 22, even though France no longer has either a grand prix on the calendar or any French-owned teams.
The season starts in Melbourne on March 17. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Mark Meadows and John Mehaffey)