Charles Leclerc takes maiden Grand Prix win amid sombre mood in Belgium

Death of F2 driver Anthoine Hubert on Saturday hangs over race at Spa

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc reacts after winning the  Belgian Grand Prix. Photograph:  Jan Suki/EPA/SRD

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc reacts after winning the Belgian Grand Prix. Photograph: Jan Suki/EPA/SRD

 

Charles Leclerc took his maiden Formula One victory at the Belgian Grand Prix. At an emotional meeting, over which the death of F2 driver Anthoine Hubert hung heavily, Leclerc delivered an exceptional, mature, controlled drive for Ferrari to take the flag. Lewis Hamilton was second for Mercedes with his team-mate Valtteri Bottas third. Sebastian Vettel was in fourth with Alexander Albon in fifth on his Red Bull debut.

The driver from Monaco took the win in an unsurprisingly sombre atmosphere at Spa after the death of Hubert on Saturday. The French driver died after a horrific accident in which his car hit the barriers and was then struck by Juan Manuel Correa. Hubert, a Renault academy driver in his rookie season in F2 died shortly afterwards having been taken to the medical centre. Correa was taken to hospital and underwent surgery for fractured legs and a spinal injury. He is now in a stable condition but still in the intensive care unit.

Sunday’s F2 race was cancelled and after the incident the motorsport community came together to pay tribute to Hubert. A one-minute silence was held before the grand prix in remembrance of Hubert, with the drivers wearing black armbands as the grid and spectators showed silent respect for a much admired driver. All the cars also carried “Racing for Anthoine” stickers honouring the Frenchman. On lap 19, Hubert’s car number, the crowd rose as one to give him a standing ovation. The mood was reflected in a quiet, considered podium ceremony, with the traditional winner’s champagne remaining unsprayed on the steps.

Despite the sadness and genuine sense of loss across the paddock, Leclerc was able to maintain his professional composure admirably. “It feels good but difficult to enjoy a weekend like this,” he said. “Thanks for everything guys, you are the best, it is a dream come true anyway.”

It is his first win after what has been largely a very impressive start in his first season for Ferrari and only his 13th race for the Scuderia, a consummate display of skill and maturity beyond his 21 years. To take the win with considerable pressure weighing on his shoulders was a real achievement, especially after Ferrari had failed to convert several times this season already.

It will come as a huge confidence boost after he had dealt so well with the crushing disappointment of seeing an almost certain win snatched away because of a mechanical problem while leading in Bahrain and being beaten by Max Verstappen in Austria.

With the right car he has definitively proved just what he can do, securing Ferrari’s first win this season and their first since the United States Grand Prix last year.

Crucially in this season’s championship battle it was the very least Ferrari required in their battle with Red Bull for second. Hamilton leads Bottas, in second, by 65 points, Verstappen is now 87 points behind in third, with Vettel 12 points behind the Dutchman and Leclerc in fifth 11 behind his team-mate.

Leclerc maintained his lead off the start while Hamilton jumped Vettel through turn one into second but was easily passed again by the German on the Kemmel Straight as the Ferrari showed its clear power advantage. Max Verstappen hit Kimi Raikkonen through turn one, and the Dutchman’s suspension and steering gave out as he went though Eau Rouge and he ended up in the wall, prompting a safety car.

Racing resumed on lap five and Leclerc held his lead cleanly and looked confident in clean air putting in repeated fastest laps and 1.8 seconds on his team- mate by lap seven.

Hamilton believed he was quicker than Vettel and began closing the gap to second place but the Ferrari’s straight-line pace proved too much and Vettel was able to hold his one-second lead. Leclerc, meanwhile, had extended his lead to over three seconds by lap 14.

Vettel pitted for the medium tyre on lap 16 but Hamilton and Leclerc stayed out, both drivers told to push by their teams but Vettel on new rubber was putting in quicker times. Leclerc was finally brought in five laps later but Vettel was in front by the time he emerged. Comprehensively quicker than Vettel, the split-stop strategy had gone heavily against Leclerc.

Hamilton pitted on lap 22 and came out behind Leclerc, having also lost time on the older rubber. In front, however, Leclerc’s pace was once again clear and he caught Vettel by 26 and Vettel was ordered to let his team-mate pass. The German, unable to match Leclerc, did so promptly.

Hamilton pursued Vettel vigorously with fresher tyres and on lap 32 passed him at Les Combes for second. Vettel subsequently had to pit again on lap 34, which cost him third place to Bottas. Hamilton hounded Leclerc right to the final lap, closing to within under two seconds but the Ferrari driver held his nerve and composure to take the flag for the first but almost certainly not the last time.

Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez was in sixth. Daniil Kvyat was in seventh for Toro Rosso with his teammate Pierre Gasly in ninth. Nico Hulkenberg was in eighth for Renault with Lance Stroll in 10th for Racing Point. – Guardian

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