Charles Leclerc says he is expecting a “very difficult” Japanese Grand Prix weekend as he prepares to compete at Suzuka, where mentor and friend Jules Bianchi suffered his ultimately fatal crash.
The Leclerc and Bianchi families hold a close friendship and the latter acted as a mentor to his younger friend through his nascent steps in motorsport.
Bianchi crashed into a recovery vehicle during the rain-affected 2014 Japanese Grand Prix and sustained a head injury from which he never recovered, passing away the following July.
This year marks Leclerc’s first time at Suzuka – having never competed at the venue – and on Wednesday he took some time off to visit the scene of the accident.
“It’s obviously a very difficult weekend,” said Leclerc, who has frequently spoken of his thanks for Bianchi's guidance in his early career.
“Jules has helped me massively throughout [my career], and more than only on the racing side, it was a bit like a part of the family, all his family, so it is very difficult.
“I’ve never come to Japan before and to do the track walk this morning was quite emotional.
“On the other hand I need to focus on this weekend to do the best job possible anyway, even if it’s a difficult weekend.”
Leclerc led the midfield fight for the first time in his Formula 1 career by placing seventh in Russia, behind only the Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull drivers.
It marked his and Sauber’s second-best finish in 2018 but Leclerc was keen to play down talk of a repeat at Suzuka.
“We were also quite surprised to see the performance we had there,” Leclerc said.
“I think we went with two very difficult weekends with Spa and Monza, especially for the low downforce package that for me was not so strong, then we recovered a bit in Singapore.
“Then Sochi was a track that was quite good for our car with the straight line and things like this.
“But we still need to keep our feet on the ground and keep working because I’m not sure we will be as competitive as we were in Sochi here, so we’ll have to see, but it might be a bit more difficult.”