Before Charles Leclerc climbed into his car for the Belgian Grand Prix the raw emotion of a traumatic weekend was writ large across his face. After the death of his friend Anthoine Hubert on Saturday at Spa, Leclerc looked withdrawn and almost shellshocked on the grid pre-race. By its close he was the winner, the pleasure of his first F1 victory tinged forever with a palpable sense of loss as he dedicated it to the memory of Hubert.
Leclerc’s win, largely untroubled at the front as he showed a pace his rivals could not match, felt like the right result after Saturday’s tragedy. Still only 21 years old, the Ferrari driver has already come to know sudden loss. His godfather, the driver Jules Bianchi, died in 2015 as a result of the injuries he sustained in an accident at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014. His father died in 2017 when Leclerc was racing in GP2, just days before the meeting in Baku at which Leclerc went on to win.
His first championship racing in 2005 had been with Hubert and the pair also competed in 2014 in Formula Renault and had remained friends. The events of Saturday were clearly a severe blow to Leclerc.
Hubert was involved in a horrific accident in which he went off, hit the barriers and was then struck by Juan Manuel Correa’s oncoming car. The French driver died shortly afterwards. 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.
On Sunday morning Leclerc had the strength, honour and empathy to console and hug Hubert’s mother, Nathalie, before he prepared to compete across the same stretch of track that had claimed his friend. Hubert was 22, a widely respected talent and very much liked. He was part of the Renault driver academy and the team had recently committed to backing him in another season of F2. That such a promising career should be cut short was impossibly painful for those who knew him.
Unsurprisingly, then, a sombre atmosphere hung heavy across the entire circuit as F1 and the fans honoured the sport’s loss. A minute’s silence was held before the start, with the drivers wearing black armbands as the grid and spectators showed respect for a much-admired driver. All the cars also carried “Racing for Anthoine” stickers and on lap 19, Hubert’s car number, the crowd rose as one to give him a standing ovation. The mood was further reflected in a quiet, considered podium ceremony, with the champagne remaining unsprayed.
For Leclerc this was truly a bittersweet moment but for Ferrari there was relief at finally claiming a win. When Leclerc led home Lewis Hamilton, who had chased him down to within a second at the flag, it was the Scuderia’s first victory this season and their first since the 2018 US grand prix. Despite the sadness and genuine sense of loss across the paddock, Leclerc had maintained his professional composure admirably to deliver for the team.
He had led from pole and made full use of the straightline speed advantage his Ferrari was enjoying on the blasts through the forests of the Ardennes. His win was threatened really only twice: when Ferrari pitted him after his teammate Sebastian Vettel, and the German moved in front of him on the track; and as Hamilton desperately surged after him in the closing laps.
Leclerc dealt with the former by calmly resuming his metronomically quick laps and swiftly reeled in Vettel who was told by the team to let him past. Indeed Vettel’s early stop meant he had to pit again, losing third place to Valtteri Bottas and ultimately finishing in fourth.
Leclerc held his nerve to great effect when Hamilton, the five-times world champion, began to clamber over his gearbox. He kept his cool even while weaving through traffic and was not pressured into an error, a level of calmness and composure that Hamilton noted as admirable after the race.
In the championship battle it changes little at the front, as Hamilton extended his lead towards a sixth title, but the battle for third is, with eight races left, increasingly tight. Hamilton leads Bottas in second by 65 points and Max Verstappen, who crashed out on the opening lap, is 87 points behind in third. Vettel is 12 points behind the Dutchman with Leclerc in fifth, 11 points behind his teammate.
At Spa motorsport was once again forced to confront the inescapable fact that it will always remain dangerous despite every effort to make it safer. With a brutal reminder of this less than 24 hours before, Leclerc faced down that reality and his own sense of loss to deliver a performance beyond his years. Time, it must be hoped, will heal the pain and perhaps then he will be able to take some pleasure in what was a deserved victory.
|FORMULA 1 JOHNNIE WALKER BELGIAN GRAND PRIX 2019 – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (44 LAPS)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result||Pts|
|1.||Charles Leclerc||Scuderia Ferrari SF90||44||1:23:45.710||25|
|2.||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes-AMG Motorsport W10||44||+ 0.981||18|
|3.||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes-AMG Motorsport W10||44||+ 12.585||15|
|4.||Sebastian Vettel||Scuderia Ferrari SF90||44||+ 26.422||13|
|5.||Alexander Albon||Red Bull Racing RB15||44||+ 1:21.325||10|
|6.||Sergio Pérez||Racing Point F1 Team RP19||44||+ 1:24.448||8|
|7.||Daniil Kvyat||Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda STR14||44||+ 1:29.657||6|
|8.||Nico Hülkenberg||Renault F1 Team RS19||44||+ 1:36.639||4|
|9.||Pierre Gasly||Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda STR14||44||+ 1:39.168||2|
|10.||Lance Stroll||Racing Point F1 Team RP19||44||+ 1:39.838||1|
|11.||Lando Norris||McLaren F1 Team MCL34||43||Power Loss|
|12.||Kevin Magnussen||Haas F1 Team VF-19||43||1 lap behind|
|13.||Romain Grosjean||Haas F1 Team VF-19||43||1 lap behind|
|14.||Daniel Ricciardo||Renault F1 Team RS19||43||1 lap behind|
|15.||George Russell||ROKiT Williams Racing FW42||43||1 lap behind|
|16.||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo Racing C38||43||1 lap behind|
|17.||Robert Kubica||ROKiT Williams Racing FW42||43||1 lap behind|
|18.||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo Racing C38||42||Accident|
|Not Classified||Team / Entry||Laps||Reason|
|DNF.||Carlos Sainz Jr.||McLaren F1 Team MCL34||1||Power Loss|
|DNF.||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing RB15||0||Accident|
Points are awarded to the top 10 classified finishers on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 scale.
Sebastian Vettel is awarded an additional 1 championship point for posting the fastest lap of the race by a points’ finisher.
Images via Scuderia Ferrari