Formula One makes an emotional return this week to the scene of Jules Bianchi’s fatal crash in what promises to be a sombre Japanese Grand Prix.
Bianchi died in July, nine months after suffering severe head injuries from hitting a recovery vehicle in rain and fading light, with the Suzuka race set to be a difficult occasion for drivers and team officials.
Bianchi’s Manor Marussia team and rivals are set to honour his memory before world champion Lewis Hamilton bids to resume normal service after a freak technical glitch last weekend in Singapore.
Hamilton’s advantage over Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg has been cut to 41 points with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel a further eight back after the German’s surprise victory in Singapore.
But the Briton, who won in Japan last year as news of Bianchi’s crash filtered through to shocked drivers, promised to hit back in Sunday’s race as he looked to equal boyhood hero Ayrton Senna’s 41 career wins.
“I was fast and on form and I will make sure I bring that out to Suzuka.”
After winning seven of this season’s 13 races so far, victory this weekend would put Hamilton tantalisingly close to a third world title with five races to go.
However, the memory of Bianchi’s sickening crash will be at the forefront of many people’s minds.
“Jules is never far away from our thoughts,” Manor Marussia sporting director Graeme Lowdon told Autosport.com. “We’re now going to Japan, and we have to be strong.
“We know it’s going to be difficult. But equally, we know Jules was a racer and would want to see the team focus on the job of racing.”
Bianchi became the first driver to die from injuries suffered during a GP weekend since Brazilian triple world champion Senna, at Italy’s Imola circuit in May 1994.
His accident occurred towards the end of a wet race when, with light fast deteriorating, Bianchi’s car skidded off the track and smashed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German Adrian Sutil, who had come off a lap earlier.
The Marussia’s roll hoop was torn off in the impact as Bianchi’s car ploughed under the crane.
Inquiry findings prompted Formula One to change safety regulations, allowing a “virtual safety car” so stewards could neutralise a race in hazardous conditions.
The start times of some races were also brought forward to prevent drivers having to race in poor light.