SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Formula One rookie Charles Leclerc will have mixed emotions when he makes his Japanese Grand Prix debut this weekend at a circuit with tragic memories.
While the Sauber driver looks forward to lapping the fast and sweeping Suzuka layout, a favourite on the calendar, memories of his boyhood friend Jules Bianchi will not be far away.
Frenchman Bianchi, driving for backmarkers Marussia, crashed heavily in the rain at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix and sustained severe head injuries that eventually claimed his life.
“It’s obviously a very difficult weekend,” Monaco-born Leclerc told reporters on a damp and drizzly Thursday in Suzuka.
“Jules has helped me massively to arrive here, more than only on the racing side. He was a bit like part of the family.
“I never came to Japan before, the track walk this morning was quite emotional.”
Leclerc’s father Herve, who died last year, and Bianchi’s father Philippe were best friends from childhood. Jules was godfather to Leclerc, whose first taste of a go-kart came on Philippe Bianchi’s kart track near Nice.
Leclerc, last year’s Formula Two champion, has impressed this season both in qualifying and with a string of points scoring finishes in the races.
The 20-year-old, like Bianchi backed by Ferrari, will be moving up to the Italian team next season alongside four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, as Bianchi had been tipped to eventually do before his death.
Leclerc said he had no visible tribute planned in memory of Bianchi this weekend.
Drivers are only allowed to wear a helmet carrying a livery different to their usual colours once in a year.
Leclerc already wore a helmet painted in his father’s Formula Three colours in his home Monaco Grand Prix in May.
He said he may run a split livery on his helmet next season, paying tribute to both his father and Bianchi.
“I’m definitely thinking about something for next year, about a helmet, but you know there is this rule where you can only run one special helmet,” he said.
“This year I did it for my father, next year I have an idea of doing something, a helmet split on both sides — one for Jules, one for my father.”
Editing by Alan Baldwin/Martyn Herman