Formula One: Bianchi casts shadow over Manor Marussia as the sport returns to Suzuka

Pallbearers carrying the coffin of French Formula One driver Jules Bianchi past a portrait of him during his funeral ceremony on July 21, 2015.
Pallbearers carrying the coffin of French Formula One driver Jules Bianchi past a portrait of him during his funeral ceremony on July 21, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

SUZUKA, JAPAN (REUTERS) - The late Jules Bianchi will be foremost in the thoughts of the Manor Marussia Formula One team this weekend as they brace for a return to the Japanese Grand Prix circuit where he suffered his horrific accident last year.

The 25-year-old French driver died in hospital in southern France in July, nine months after suffering severe head injuries when his Marussia skidded off a wet track in fading light at Suzuka and hit a recovery tractor.

Bianchi was the first F1 driver to die of injuries suffered during a race since Brazilian Ayrton Senna in 1994.

Marussia principal John Booth said going back to the circuit for Sunday's race would be "extremely emotional" and challenging for everyone at the team and appealed for understanding.

"We were Jules' team, and with that in mind, I would ask everyone to understand and respect that, this weekend, we wish to deal with the experience of returning to Suzuka in a very private, introspective way. Our commitments will be reflective of this," he said in a team preview.

Marussia went into administration after last year's accident, racing with just one car in Russia and missing the final three races, but were rescued at the 11th hour. Many of those who worked with Bianchi are still with the team.

Both current drivers, Briton Will Stevens and American Alexander Rossi, were in Suzuka last year in reserve roles.

Bianchi's absence has loomed large over the season already, notably in Monaco - where last year he finished ninth to score the team's first and only points to date - and in Hungary after his death.

Many Formula One drivers had attended his funeral in Nice only days before Hungary, where a silent tribute was held on the grid in the presence of his family.

"We think of Jules every single day; he will forever be a huge part of our team," Booth said. "His name has also been on our car at every single race. That tribute, our incredibly fond memories of Jules and the camaraderie we have within our team are all we need to race on in his honour in Suzuka this weekend."

Stevens said he would try and focus on racing.

"In the same circumstances, Jules would have gone about the business of racing in a very focused and professional way and that is exactly what I'll be doing," he said.