Charles Leclerc dedicated his maiden Formula One victory at the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday to his late friend, Anthoine Hubert on an emotional day at a sombre Spa-Francorchamps.
The Ferrari driver’s landmark success came in the aftermath of 22-year-old Frenchman Hubert’s death in Saturday’s tragic Formula Two race.
Leclerc led almost the entire race from pole to hold off Mercedes’ defending five time world champion Lewis Hamilton’s dramatic late charge by one second.
“My first victory in F1 and this one is for Anthoine,” he said on the team radio. “It feels good, but it’s difficult to enjoy on a weekend like this. But thanks guys, you are the best – it’s a dream come true.”
After what he described as “a very difficult weekend” he added: “I have lost a friend and I want to dedicate this victory to him.
“We grew up together and my first race I did it with Anthoine, Esteban (Ocon) and Pierre (Gasly). I cannot enjoy my first victory, but it will definitely be a memory I will keep forever.”
Valtteri Bottas took third in the second Mercedes ahead of last year’s winner Sebastian Vettel in the second Ferrari.
Hamilton’s strong finish almost carried him to within reach of a stunning late win, but the result still enabled him to enlarge his lead in the title race to 65 points ahead of Bottas.
“I gave it everything that I had,” said Hamilton. “It was a really difficult race and the Ferraris were just too fast on the straights. Congratulations to Charles for his first win — he’s had it coming all year.”
Red Bull new boy Alex Albon came home fifth for Red Bull, after luckless British rookie Lando Norris’s McLaren had stopped with one lap remaining, ahead of Sergio Perez of Racing Point, Daniil Kvyat of Toro Rosso and Nico Hulkenberg of Renault.
Pierre Gasly came home ninth on his return to the Toro Rosso team and Lance Stroll 10th in the second Racing Point.
The race took place in a sombre atmosphere at the dramatic and spectacular Ardennes circuit.
It was preceded by a minute’s silence to honour Hubert, killed in a multi-car collision in the Formula Two race 24 hours earlier.
Conditions were significantly cooler than in practice as the lights went out and Leclerc led from pole.
Behind him, Hamilton passed Vettel, who fought back to regain second, and there was contact between Max Verstappen, who made a poor start, and Raikkonen.
The Red Bull continued with a damaged track-rod, briefly, before lurching into the barriers on the outside of the rise to Eau Rouge. Verstappen was unhurt and climbed out as a Safety Car was deployed, pulling in after lap four.
By lap 10, Leclerc was 2.4 seconds clear of Vettel whose top speed on the straights was enough to keep him beyond Hamilton’s attacks.
Vettel pitted to switch from softs to mediums on lap 16, rejoining fifth behind Norris while Hamilton rose to second in pursuit of Leclerc. “Push now,” Ferrari told the Monegasque.
On lap 19, the entire crowd rose to give a standing ovation in memory of Hubert, who raced with that number.
Two laps later, Ferrari called in Leclerc to begin the pit-stops sequence. Clearly frustrated, Hamilton asked why he was not pitted earlier as he began his pursuit again of the two Ferraris.
On lap 27, Leclerc regained the lead when Vettel, under orders, moved aside and then informed Ferrari that his tyres “won’t make it to the end”.
“He’s going to walk all over us,” Vettel complained, as Hamilton closed up and then passed him at Les Combes.
Up to second again, Hamilton had 11 laps to catch Leclerc who led by six seconds in pursuit of his maiden triumph while Vettel ceded another position by pitting again for softs.
A year after his last win, the four-time champion was fourth as Hamilton launched an epic charge.