Calmly and cooly, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc finally claimed his long-expected first career Formula One victory as well as Ferrari’s first 2019 crown at the Belgium Grand Prix, just a day after the death of his childhood racing partner Antoine Hubert.
With that bitter tragedy, the enormous challenge of Spa suddenly became more than a test of speed – it became a challenge of Leclerc’s emotional toughness, and the 21-year-old Monegasque ace responded by delivering a flawless demonstration of his character under pressure.
Although his race pace was breathtaking, it wasn’t without drama. Leclerc saw championship leader Lewis Hamilton quickly dispatch Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel with a late-race ten-tenths charge, but Leclerc remained in the zone, confidently hit all of his marks to cross the line 0.9s ahead of the Brit for the victory.
Leclerc publicly dedicated the win to Hubert after crossing the finish line. “First win… this one is for Antoine,” Leclerc announced to his Ferrari team over his radio as he pulled into the pit-lane. “Feels good, but… difficult to enjoy a weekend like this. Thanks for everything, guys. You’re the best.”
Rather than a rousing champagne celebration, Leclerc instead chose to keep the bubbly in the bottle as respect for his long-time friend Hubert, who sadly had succumbed to his injuries from Saturday’s Formula 2 race.
His victory means Leclerc finally claimed the win which already eluded him twice this year. A freak engine failure cruelly robbed him of sure triumph during the last few laps Bahrain Grand Prix, while a crash in qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw a golden opportunity slip through his fingers. Then in June, he felt the sting of a last-lap pass as Max Verstappen barged past into the lead of the Austrian Grand Prix.
As an impressed Lewis Hamilton said afterwards, “it’s been a long time coming”.
Mere minutes before Saturday’s first of two F2 heats, Leclerc’s Ferrari had taken pole by a significantly dominant 0.7s. He had looked in superb form in each prior practice session.
Vettel only just managed to beat Hamilton to the front row of the grid. He didn’t seem happy with his preparations on the out-lap, due to heavy traffic. Those initial laps were crucial for getting his tyre temperature to their ideal working range on a more temperate day, and Vettel felt traffic hadn’t allowed him to preset his Ferrari’s tyres for its best qualifying profile.
Hamilton would start third. His participation in qualifying had been in doubt earlier in the day after he crashed heavily out of FP3.
Charles Leclerc was among the members of the F1 paddock who joined Formula 3’s minute’s silence on Sunday morning. Along with teammate Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto, he stood to the side of the F3 and F2 drivers as they paid their respects to their colleague and friend. And when the minute was up, he approached Hubert’s mother, who he had known since 2005, and embraced her.
From 2005 forward, Leclerc grew up on the same go-kart tracks as Hubert, racing against the Frenchman and remaining his close friend throughout their racing careers. He would explain after his victory on Sunday’s that he, Hubert, Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon had all raced together in go-karts in 2005 and had set out on their careers as “four kids dreaming of Formula One”.
Their paths split during the junior categories as Hubert struggled for budget and took longer to move through the ranks, but Leclerc remained close to the Frenchman.
As he excused himself from Hubert’s mother and walked back to the paddock from the F3 grid, Leclerc looked utterly devastated.
As now is his way at just 21, Leclerc managed to compartmentalise his feelings and prepare for his start. He would take the lead at Turn 1 and never look back. Vettel followed, with the Mercedes of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in hot pursuit.
Behind them was the traditional carnage as the remainder of the field tried to place themselves in a position to take Turn 1 (La Source) best and use the speed to pass cars down the long Kemmel Straight.
The primary recipient of the first lap carnage was Max Verstappen. Red Bull’s lead driver suffered a slow start and then received steering damage when Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo squeezed the young Dutchman as they both went for the apex of Turn 1. Their approach angles meant that neither driver saw the other. There was contact, with Raikkonen taking to the air after his right front tyre damaged Vertappen’s steering rod. Seconds later, Verstappen’s crippled car went straight off as he came through Eau Rouge, and impacted the outside wall.
The race was immediately controlled by the Safety Car. With the Safety Car ready to return to the pits on Lap 3, McLaren’s Carlos Sainz stopped on track after losing power.
Racing resumed on Lap 5, and Leclerc pulled away from Vettel while his teammate held back Hamilton through the first half of the race. Perhaps with tyres worn from that duty, Vettel was the first to stop on Lap 15 of 44.
Leclerc, Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas remained out for six more laps, and by the time Leclerc stopped on Lap 21, he had lost too much time to Vettel to hold the lead.
Vettel’s efforts on new tyres handed him a five-second margin when Leclerc emerged from the pits, but Leclerc aggressively clawed back the time with fresh tyres.
With 18 laps remaining, Leclerc was within DRS range. Ferrari instructed Vettel to let his teammate through, with Leclerc giving Vettel a “tow” on the Kemmel Straight to minimise the time loss.
By then, Vettel had got the best from his tyres and stopped the next lap for fresh rubber. His stop allowed Hamilton a brief window to chase Leclerc down, but it was not to be, and the Brit settled for second.
Valtteri Bottas finished third in the second Mercedes, dropping him 65 points behind teammate Hamilton with eight Grands Prix remaining.
Sebastian Vettel finished fourth, never able to recover after Ferrari chose the strategy call which saw him called into the pits earlier than anticipated. He was one of the only runners to pit twice, although there was some consolation that he was able to use the tyre advantage to claim the extra point now awarded to fastest lap.
Lando Norris came through the chaotic first lap unscathed, gaining positions that had him expecting a brilliant fifth-placed finish, but he lost power at the beginning of the final lap and parked his McLaren on the outside of the front straight.
Max Verstappen’s new Red Bull teammate Alexander Albon started the race in 18th place on the grid, thanks to a new engine penalty and inherited Norris’ points in his debut race while also braving a late pass of Sergio Perez on the grass bordering the Kemmel Straight on the final lap.
Albon, who only first sat in his Red Bull chassis for the first time on Friday morning, looked supremely comfortable as he used a classic over-under /outside pass on Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo. That pass undoubtedly gave the Red Bull team successful confirmation that their last-minute switch of Albon from Toro Rosso for Pierre Gasly had been a wise move.
Albon’s former team shouldn’t feel slighted as both their drivers took championship points. Daniil Kvyat took seventh place ahead of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, with Pierre Gasly finishing ninth in the first race since taking over Albon’s old seat during the enforced August break.
Antonio Giovinazzi had been running a steady ninth on the penultimate lap when he put his Alfa Romeo into the wall at Pouhon, ruining what would have been the best finish of his up-and-down 2019 rookie season.
Lance Stroll claimed the final point on offer for Racing Point.
Poor Lando Norris was classified in 11th ahead of Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, who both shared the grief of being the slowest man on track when their Haas cars used the medium tyre.
In both instances, the black and gold cars were unable to fend off any other team’s car as soon as it had the DRS opened down the Kemmel Straight.
Leclerc is no stranger to tragedy
In 2015 he had to deal with the loss of his godfather and mentor Jules Bianchi — the last driver to suffer fatal injuries at a Grand Prix weekend before Hubert — who passed away as a result of an accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. Two years later, his father died at the age of 54 the day before Leclerc was due to travel to Azerbaijan for the next round of his Formula 2 campaign.
Although just 19 years old at the time, he was able to take a degree of strength from the emotions of his father’s death and went on to win the race.
That same inner strength was demonstrated on Sunday as he outperformed teammate Vettel and kept Lewis Hamilton, who arguably had the faster race car at Spa, behind him. After missing out on opportunities to take his first F1 win in Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Austria earlier this year, the pressure was immense, but Leclerc was more than equal to challenge.
“I wasn’t nervous,” he said of the final laps as Hamilton took chunks out of his lead on each lap. “I’ve started to get used to being in that situation where I’m first, and I’m being chased by someone who is quicker.
A touching tribute
On the 19th lap of this race, the crowd dotted around the Spa-Francorchamps circuits stood to their feet to applaud. The number was significant as it was the one carried on Hubert’s car this season — a touching tribute to a young man who seemed to be on a trajectory to a very successful future.
The Scuderia’s Plan
Ferrari’s strategy for Sunday’s race was relatively simple: use the car’s most significant strength – its straight-line speed advantage – to hold back Mercedes in the overtaking zones and maximise strategy opportunities to cover the car’s weaknesses in tyre management.
For the first time since pre-season testing, Binotto sounded confident about his team’s chances at the next race and the car’s supreme straight-line speed should be enough to secure another front-row lock-out in qualifying and the team’s first win on home turf since Fernando Alonso’s victory in 2010.
Certainly, Spa and Monza are the most power-sensitive circuits on the calendar, and the Scuderia demonstrated that the SF90 package should be as competitive at Monza as at Spa.
For the first time since pre-season testing, Binotto sounds confident about his team’s chances in Italy and the car’s supreme straight-line speed should be enough to secure another front-row lock-out in qualifying and the team’s first win on home turf since Fernando Alonso’s victory in 2010.
However, the battle between Ferrari and Mercedes isn’t just with pure speed. Ferrari revealed they had recently developed some low downforce packages — some of which appeared at Spa. Knowing that Mercedes is limited to any substantial improvements in just a week, Ferrari’s blend of low-speed grip and high-speed dominance shows the Scuderia will be ultra-competitive in Monza.
Could this be a late season’s touring point?
We’ll know this weekend.