Charles Leclerc says he expects a “very difficult” and “emotional” weekend during his first Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix, the scene of his late friend and mentor Jules Bianchi’s accident.

Leclerc enjoyed a close friendship with Bianchi, who was tipped for a successful future career with Ferrari prior to his death in July 2015, nine months after he sustained severe head injuries in a crash while driving for Marussia at Suzuka.

This weekend marks the first time Leclerc - who has set himself the task of winning the titles Bianchi deserved when he graduates to Ferrari in 2019 - has visited the Japanese circuit as he prepares for his first grand prix outing at the venue.

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“It’s obviously a very difficult weekend,” Leclerc said. “Jules has helped me massively throughout here, 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 came 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 said he visited the scene of Bianchi’s accident upon his arrival to the circuit on Wednesday and revealed he is planning to run a special tribute helmet in memory of the Frenchman next year.

“I’m definitely thinking about something next year about the helmet but you know there’s this rule where you can only have one special helmet and this year was for my father,” he explained.

“Next year I have an idea of doing something with the helmet of split both sides with one for Jules and one for my father, this year nothing more special than just making him remember as much as I can to the public.”

Leclerc heads into the race off the back of two consecutive appearances in the points, including a brilliant seventh-place finish at last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, which helped Sauber close to within three points of Toro Rosso in the constructors’ championship.

The Monegasque has urged his side to remain grounded about its chances in Japan after admitting he was surprised by Sauber’s competitiveness in Sochi.

“We were quite surprised to see the performance we had there [in Sochi],” he added.

“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 lines.

“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.”

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