MEDLAND: Racing for Anthoine

Image by Steven Tee/LAT

MEDLAND: Racing for Anthoine

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: Racing for Anthoine

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The motorsport community is an incredible place. And it should be proud of the way it reacts in the toughest times.

Saturday at Spa-Francorchamps was one of those occasions. From the instant that Anthoine Hubert and Juan Manuel Correa crashed on the second lap of the Formula 2 feature race, it was like nothing else mattered to anybody at the circuit.

The buzz of a grand prix circuit during a Formula 1 weekend was instantly replaced. Walking out into the paddock from the McLaren motorhome — where everyone had stopped working to wait for news — the place was silent. I can’t remember a time that somewhere that is usually so busy and loud was so quiet without it being requested.

The media center lost the humming of chatter among journalists, and simply became an echo of keys typing and deep exhalations.

These are not the moments anybody wants to face in racing — nor of course in any walk of life — but as the worst possible news was confirmed, it was faced together, as a racing family.

That extends far beyond those present in the paddock in Belgium. Within moments, IndyCar stopped at Portland to remember a talented, humble, positive Frenchman, who many even in F1 had not even been aware of.

But whether you counted Anthoine as a close friend or were hearing his name for the first time, you had a bond with him because you shared his passion.

The entire field of IndyCar Series drivers, plus every crew and staff member, assembled for a moment of silence in honor of Hubert at Portland. Image by Scott LePage/LAT

The Indy Lights drivers didn’t spray champagne on the podium. Formula 4 races were preceded by a minute’s silence in tribute. Globally, members of this crazy little world we call motorsport — fans very much included — came together to pay their respects.

And that was all before some of the bravest young racers took to the track once again in Belgium.

I’m not talking about the F1 drivers — as tough a day as it was for them — but the Formula 3 grid. With the F2 sprint race on Sunday morning cancelled, the second F3 race was moved into its slot at 11 a.m. And in a break from the usual protocol, drivers climbed from their cars once on the grid and stood together at the front in a moment of silence for Anthoine.

They were joined by F2 and F1 drivers and personnel. Marshals held up the red, white and blue flags in honor of the Frenchman.

Of the F3 grid, the likes of Max Fewtrell, Christian Lundgaard and Ye Yifei were all Renault Academy members alongside Hubert. Jake Hughes had been his teammate at ART last year when Hubert won the final GP3 championship.

There’s no Arden team in F3, but the Sauber Junior Team by Charouz — the same team Correa drives for — races in both series. Like those I’ve just mentioned, when the tribute on the grid was over, its trio of F3 drivers — Lirim Zendeli, Fabio Scherer and Raoul Hyman — had to put their helmets on, strap themselves in and race past the spot Hubert had been killed not 18 hours before.

They knew the risks already. They certainly knew them now. And they still went out and did what they love.

Even if the whole paddock stopped to watch like never before in the hope of a safe, clean race, for those drivers there wasn’t going to be the adulation or interest that an F1 race gets, but that’s because they’re still chasing that dream. One Anthoine was chasing too.

Anthoine Hubert celebrates victory with a French Tricolore after the F2 Sprint Race at Circuit Paul Ricard in June. Image by Joe Portlock/LAT

“The dream is to win the Formula 1 championship with Renault — at a French Grand Prix!” Hubert told me in an interview for the race program at his home race earlier this year. He had big dreams.

It’s a dream he will never fulfill, but others will still chase. And it’s fitting that one of the F1 drivers closest to him then achieved one of their own dreams on Sunday.

“I was racing with (Charles) Leclerc, (Pierre) Gasly, (Esteban) Ocon… We were all racing at the front, so I won the French Cup with these guys,” Hubert said in that same interview, recalling his early racing career.

Leclerc had recalled it too. He was visibly emotional stood on the F3 grid during the minute’s silence, but more composed by the time F1 prepared to race — even if Gasly had told the polesitter to win for their former rival.

It is only Leclerc’s second year, but the first win had felt a long time coming. He should have had it in Bahrain where the car agonizingly let him down, and could have with a more aggressive defense against Max Verstappen in Austria. But now it feels fitting he was made to wait.

The 21-year-old is a hugely impressive young man. Mentored by Jules Bianchi as he climbed the racing ladder, he lost his father in the days before an F2 race in Baku during his title year in 2017, and duly went and took pole position, winning race one and finishing second in race two.

Leclerc admitted after Sunday’s race that he called upon that experience to deal with the situation at Spa, delivering the perfect tribute to Hubert.

“The first victory on a day like this is a sign in a way to remember him in the way he deserved — he was a champion and he will be missed,” Leclerc said.

“For me it was definitely the first situation like that where we lose someone on track – a track that you need to race the day after. So it’s obviously quite a challenge to then close the visor and go through this exact same corner at the exact same speed you do the day before — but that’s what you need to do at the end.”

A somber, but nonetheless deeply satisfying moment for Leclerc. Image by Sam Bloxham/LAT

And his words on team radio immediately after the checkered flag told you exactly why he — and the rest of the drivers on Sunday — got in the car to race: “My first victory in F1…

“This one is for Anthoine. It feels good but difficult to enjoy on a weekend like this. But thanks for everything guys, you’re the best. A dream come true anyway.”

It’s a dream that we love to watch drivers chase. Fans are thrilled by it, and rivals respect that common pursuit. And on a day when paying tribute to Hubert came in the form of drivers going out and chasing their dreams once again, even Mercedes boss Toto Wolff had to concede Leclerc was the fitting winner.

“The whole race weekend and the sport is going to be overshadowed for a long time,” Wolff said. “If a young man loses his life in a freak accident you cannot just continue with business as usual. We are all affected by it, certainly his family. I feel for his family, it must be the most painful experience — I can’t even imagine. And for his friends in the cars, certainly not an easy race.

“Among those is Charles, so he deserves to win and maybe the right man won at the right time.”

He most certainly did. For himself, and for Anthoine.

 

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