Charles Leclerc took an emotional first victory for Ferrari at the Belgian Grand Prix, as the racing world paid tribute to Anthoine Hubert.
Hubert’s death during Saturday’s Formula 2 feature race at Spa-Francorchamps led to the cancellation of the sprint race on Sunday morning, but racing resumed with a Formula 3 round. A minute’s silence was held both before that race and again before the grand prix, with drivers from all categories standing at the front of the grid where Hubert’s helmet was placed on a podium.
Leclerc had raced with the Frenchman in karting and junior categories and was visibly emotional prior to the race, but the pole-sitter put in an excellent performance to take his first victory.
It wasn’t easy for Leclerc, who pulled away comfortably at the start but was hampered by higher tire wear than the chasing Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton had easily dispatched Sebastian Vettel – who had to pit for a second time after making an early first stop – and reeled in Leclerc, but couldn’t get close enough to launch an attack and crossed the line 0.9s adrift.
It was Leclerc’s first victory in F1 and Ferrari’s first of the season.
“My first victory in F1,” he said. “This one is for Anthoine. It feels good… but difficult to enjoy a weekend like this.”
Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas completed the podium after Vettel faded to a distant fourth. Vettel lost out to Hamilton at the start but regained second place on the run to Les Combes, and then held off the Mercedes before his first pit stop. Pitting early meant Vettel was in the lead after the rest of the top four stopped, but Ferrari was struggling with higher tire wear, and after dropping behind Hamilton again, Vettel pitted for a second time and set the fastest lap on his way to fourth place.
Lando Norris produced an excellent start to avoid the colliding Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen, jumping from 11th on the grid to fifth place. Verstappen had a slow start and tried to dive down the inside of Raikkonen at La Source but hit the Alfa Romeo, sending Raikkonen airborne and breaking his front left suspension.
That damage led to Verstappen crashing at Raidillon, bringing out the Safety Car. Norris cut inside the collision at the first corner and emerged in fifth, where he ran comfortably until the final lap, when he stopped on the pit straight to be agonizingly classified in 11th.
His misfortune allowed Alexander Albon to finish fifth on his first appearance for Red Bull. Albon overtook Sergio Perez with two wheels on the grass on the Kemmel Straight in a dramatic final lap, with Antonio Giovinazzi crashing at Pouhon moments earlier.
Giovinazzi went straight into the barrier when running just ahead of the leaders – who were about to lap him – in ninth place. The race was able to be completed under yellow flags, allowing Pierre Gasly to be promoted to ninth and Lance Stroll the final point in 10th. Behind Perez in sixth, Daniil Kvyat and Nico Hulkenberg also picked up points in seventh and eighth respectively.
The late failure for Norris capped a tough day for McLaren as Carlos Sainz was slow away off the grid and then retired on just the third lap, losing power behind the Safety Car.
However, those issues were put into perspective by other events this weekend. The Spa-Francorchamps crowd delivered its own tribute with a standing ovation on lap 19 – Hubert’s number in F2 – before Leclerc climbed from his car and pointed to the sky. He dedicated his victory to the 22-year-old and held back tears on the podium, where no champagne was sprayed.