First Japanese GP an emotional one for Sauber driver Leclerc

(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

By JIM ARMSTRONG

AP Sports Writer

SUZUKA, Japan (AP) Charles Leclerc's first appearance at the Japanese Grand Prix was an emotional one.

The Sauber driver was mentored through his junior racing years by Jules Bianchi, who died nine months after a horrific crash at the rain-hit Japanese GP in 2014.

Leclerc, who retired with technical problems on the 39th lap of Sunday's race, visited the site of Bianchi's crash, calling it part of a "very difficult" weekend.

"It's obviously a very difficult weekend," said Leclerc. "Jules has helped me massively to arrive here, more than only on the racing side. He was a bit like part of the family."

Bianchi crashed into a recovery vehicle that was removing another car at the time. The race was delayed because of rain and it was getting dark at the Suzuka circuit at the time of the crash.

Bianchi was the first Formula One driver in over 21 years to die as a result of an F1 racing accident since Ayrton Senna's death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

The Monaco-born Leclerc began his karting career at a track managed by Bianchi's father in southern France.

In March 2016, it was announced that Leclerc would be one of two drivers to join the Ferrari Driver Academy and would act as development driver for Haas F1 Team and Scuderia Ferrari.

His best finish this season was sixth place at the race in Azerbaijan.

Last month, it was announced that Leclerc will replace Kimi Raikkonen at the Scuderia Ferrari team for 2019.

For now, Leclerc is focused on paying tribute to Bianchi.

"For this year, I will have nothing more special than trying to make him remembered as much as I can to the public," Leclerc said.

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Updated October 7, 2018

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