Leclerc holds off Hamilton to take emotional maiden Grand Prix victory
Charles Leclerc claimed the first Formula 1 victory of his career and Ferrari’s first in the 2019 campaign in the Belgium Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, less than 24 hours after his friend Anthoine Hubert passed away after a crash in Saturday’s F2 feature race.
The Monegasque, who immediately dedicated his win to Hubert, who he grew up racing, was in a league of his own all weekend, topping two of the three practice sessions and all three segments of qualifying on his way to his third pole position.
Come race day, Leclerc led away from P1 and though he lost track position to team mate Sebastian Vettel during the pit stops, Ferrari instructed Vettel to move aside for the flying polesitter. From there Leclerc led reasonably comfortably, though he had to coolly hold off a late attack from Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to clinch victory.
It was Ferrari’s first victory since Kimi Raikkonen triumphed in last year’s United States Grand Prix, with Leclerc the Scuderia’s 39th winner and Monaco the 23rd nation to win an F1 race. The 21-year-old also became the third-youngest winner in F1 history.
Hamilton hunted down and passed Vettel, who was struggling with tyres after pitting early, to move into second and extend his championship lead, with team mate Valtteri Bottas completing the podium.
Vettel was forced to pit for a second time to take the soft tyres, which gave him the opportunity to take the fastest lap and a bonus point, but he could finish no better than fourth.
McLaren’s Lando Norris was set to finish in fifth place, in what would have been the best result of his rookie season so far, but he retired on the final lap with suspected engine failure. That position was inherited by Red Bull’s Alexander Albon, who passed Sergio Perez via the grass on the final lap to take a superb fifth from 17th on the grid in his first race with his new team.
Racing Point’s Sergio Perez equalled his best result of the season in sixth, though the Mexican is under investigation for forcing Albon off the track, with Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat seventh. Antonio Giovinazzi was set for the best result of his career in eighth, but he crashed at Pouhon on the final lap, thankfully climbing out unscathed.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg crossed the line eighth, ahead of Pierre Gasly, who was visibly emotional on race morning follow the passing of his friend Hubert, in his first race back with Toro Rosso. Lance Stroll made it two Racing Points in the top 10 by rounding out the points.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen failed to finish in the top five for the first time since last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, more than a year ago, after he collided with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 1 on the opening lap and then crashed at the top of Eau Rouge to the disappointment of a huge travelling contingent of Dutch fans.
On the 19th lap of the race, fans were on their feet for a round of applause in memory of Hubert, who carried the number 19 on his F2 car.
AS IT HAPPENED
Leclerc made a perfect getaway from pole position to lead into Turn 1, but his Ferrari team mate Vettel came under attack from Hamilton who slipped by. The German quickly regrouped, slipped into the slipstream and then sauntered by on the Kemmel Straight to reassert Ferrari’s one-two.
Further back, Verstappen had a slow getaway from fifth and then as he dived up the inside at Turn 1 trying to make amends, he left his braking a little late and collided with Kimi Raikkonen, lifting the Alfa Romeo briefly up onto two wheels.
Verstappen continued, but had damage and as he tried to navigate the steep uphill Eau Rouge, he realised he couldn’t turn and went straight on into the barriers, very narrowly avoiding a second contact with Raikkonen, who recovered to the pits and returned to the track, but had signifcant damage to the floor.
The Safety Car was called into action, neutralising the race while they recovered Verstappen’s Red Bull. Its presence was extended when Carlos Sainz retired his McLaren on the run-off at the Bus Stop chicane with a loss of power.
On the restart, Leclerc comfortably led away, with Vettel locking up and coming under significant pressure from Hamilton at La Source. That mistake ultimately led to Ferrari pitting him earlier than planned, as his lap times were suffering.
On rejoining on the mediums, Vettel lit up the timesheets, lapping at times around two seconds quicker than his rivals. That kind of pace meant he was able to assume the lead once Leclerc, Hamilton and Bottas had pitted.
But the early stop had reprecussions later in the race as he soon lost tyre performance, and after dutifully allowing Leclerc to pass for the lead and losing a place to Hamilton at the top of the Kemmel Straight, he pitted for softs.
His pace was impressive on returning, but the gap was too big to close and he ended up fourth, albeit with the fastest lap. Hamilton had supreme pace in the final stint of the race, taking tenths of a second per lap out of Leclerc but he ultimately ran out of time to really get close enough to launch an attack.
Bottas completed the podium, ahead of Albon, who scored a career-best finish. Perez finished in the top six at Spa for the fourth time in the last five years while Kvyat finished seventh.
Hulkenberg, who found out last week that he would not be retained by Renault next season, took only his fourth points finish in the last 12 races, capitalising on a couple of retirements in the closing stages to finish eighth.
Gasly scored for the eighth time in the last nine races with ninth while Stroll gave Racing Point their second double points finish of the season with 10th.
The key quote
“Since I was a child I’ve been looking up to Formula 1, dreaming to be first a Formula 1 driver, which happened last year, then driving for Ferrari this year, and then the first win today.
“It’s a good day, but on the other hand, as I said, losing Anthoine yesterday brings me back to 2005, my first ever French championship. There was him, Esteban [Ocon], Pierre [Gasly] and myself. We were four kids that were dreaming of Formula 1. We grew up in karting for many, many years, and to lose him yesterday was a big shock for me but obviously for everyone in motorsport, so it was a very sad day.” – Charles Leclerc
Formula 1 heads straight to Italy, where the paddock will be rebuilt in time for next Sunday’s race at high-speed Monza. Mercedes have triumphed there for the last five years, but it is Ferrari who head to their home race as favourites this time, courtesy of their class-leading power unit.