MONACO’s Charles Leclerc claimed the first Formula 1 victory of his career and Ferrari’s first this year in the Belgian Grand Prix at the long, superfast and undulating Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the Ardenne forest.

But it was a bittersweet win, coming less than 24 hours after his long-time friend Anthoine Hubert died in an horrific high-speed crash in the F2 feature race the previous day.

Instead of jubilation on the podium, there was no spraying of champagne as Leclerc dedicated his win to Hubert.

The 22-year-old Frenchman was a member of the Renault Sport Academy and raced in the FIA Formula 2 Championship, the final step to F1. 

“His performance and conduct on and off track was that of a true gentleman and it was a pleasure and honour to have had him within our academy,” Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul said.

While that shadow clouded race day, Leclerc was in top form all weekend, topping all three qualifying sessions and, bar a stop for a tyre change, leading the grand prix from start to finish.

It was the prancing horse team’s first win since Kimi Raikkonen triumphed in last year’s US Grand Prix.

In second place was Lewis Hamilton who got past Sebastien Vettel’s Ferrari, with his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas claiming third.

Vettel was fourth, making it a Ferrari sandwich with Mercedes filling.

It was a disappointing race for several teams, Red Bull, McLaren, Renault and Alfa Romeo in particular.

Max Verstappen’s race was over within seconds, after he tried to squeeze his Red Bull past Raikkonen’s Alfa at Eau Rouge.

The impact put the Alfa up on two wheels, but it also broke the Red Bull’s steering and, to the disappointment of the vast crowd of Dutch fans from across the border, Verstappen ended up smashed into the barrier.

Lando Norris made a great start and shot his orange McLaren into 5th spot right from the start, where he stayed throughout the race — until the car expired on the last of the 44 laps and the talented young Brit parked it just beyond the finish line.

In 9th place on the last lap was Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi, whose race also came to an end with a spin and a meeting with a wall.

The Renaults of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg showed good pace, qualifying 6th and 7th, but forfeited grid places because of engine changes and started 10th and 11th.

Ricciardo was hit from behind in the melee caused by Verstappen, but managed to continue, despite a severely bent floorpan.

“Our race was pretty much shaped after the lap one, turn one incident,” he said.

“I had to pit – I actually thought we might retire the car – but we  kept going, held our place in the top 10, and I thought at one stage we might pick up some points.”

For some time he ran 7th.

“I was proud to hold on for that long and I know we couldn’t have done any more,” he said. 

“I’m glad today is over; yesterday’s news [Hubert’s death] has been difficult to take. It was tough to be here and put on a brave face, but I’m glad I gave it my best.”

Teammate Hulkenberg fared better, finishing 8th — but he too, had a tough time.

“It was a difficult race right from the start. I had to take avoiding action at turn one to miss the collisions and we lost some positions there,” he said. 

“The midfield was again very close today meaning making back the positions was hard. We pitted near the end for Softs and that paid off. 

“We were certainly a bit lucky on those last laps, but it was good to get some points on the board, especially in the circumstances after yesterday’s shock news.”

Team principal Cyril Abiteboul praised both drivers.

“Daniel did an extremely good job considering the circumstances and the very significant damage to his car, which cost him at least half a second per lap,” he said. 

McLaren’s misfortune gifted fifth place to Red Bull’s Alexander Albon, who put in a great drive in his debut for the team, edging past Sergio Perez (Racing Point) on the final lap. 

Then came Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, Hulkenberg, Pierre Gasly in his first race back with Toro Rosso and Lance Stroll, who claimed 10th for Racing Point.

The last lap was quite a nail biter, with Hamilton in the Mercedes closing in on Leclerc, but the Ferrari managed to stay ahead, taking the flag less than a second ahead of Hamilton. Bottas was some 12 seconds astern and Vettel way behind.

The Haas cars lacked pace, unable to match their decent speeds in qualifying.

When the pit radioed Grosjean saying there was a chance of the cars finishing in the top 10, Grosjean made it clear he could not fight back.

“No mate, no mate, no mate, I have been here for 30 laps and we’re losing 20km/h, there’s no chance.”

The huge crowd around the 7km long circuit got to their feet on lap 19 to pay an emotional tribute to Antoine Hubert, whose F2 car carried the 19 number.

Next race is the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on September 8.

Results

POS NO DRIVER CAR LAPS TIME/RETIRED PTS
1 16 Charles Leclerc FERRARI 44 1:23:45.710 25
2 44 Lewis Hamilton MERCEDES 44 +0.981s 18
3 77 Valtteri Bottas MERCEDES 44 +12.585s 15
4 5 Sebastian Vettel FERRARI 44 +26.422s 13
5 23 Alexander Albon RED BULL RACING HONDA 44 +81.325s 10
6 11 Sergio Perez RACING POINT BWT MERCEDES 44 +84.448s 8
7 26 Daniil Kvyat SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO HONDA 44 +89.657s 6
8 27 Nico Hulkenberg RENAULT 44 +106.639s 4
9 10 Pierre Gasly SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO HONDA 44 +109.168s 2
10 18 Lance Stroll RACING POINT BWT MERCEDES 44 +109.838s 1
11 4 Lando Norris MCLAREN RENAULT 43 DNF 0
12 20 Kevin Magnussen HAAS FERRARI 43 +1 lap 0
13 8 Romain Grosjean HAAS FERRARI 43 +1 lap 0
14 3 Daniel Ricciardo RENAULT 43 +1 lap 0
15 63 George Russell WILLIAMS MERCEDES 43 +1 lap 0
16 7 Kimi Räikkönen ALFA ROMEO RACING FERRARI 43 +1 lap 0
17 88 Robert Kubica WILLIAMS MERCEDES 43 +1 lap 0
18 99 Antonio Giovinazzi ALFA ROMEO RACING FERRARI 42 DNF 0
NC 55 Carlos Sainz MCLAREN RENAULT 1 DNF 0
NC 33 Max Verstappen RED BULL RACING HONDA 0 DNF 0

Note – Vettel scored an additional point for setting the fastest lap of the race

CHECKOUT: Renault eyes off bargain-priced Ocon 

CHECKOUT: Bull at a gate — Gasly gone

Buys

Bill Buys, probably Australia’s longest-serving motoring writer, has been at his craft for more than five decades. Athough motoring has always been in his DNA, he was also night crime reporter, foreign page editor and later chief reporter of the famed Rand Daily Mail. He’s twice been shot at, attacked by a rhinoceros and had several chilling experiences in aircraft. His experience includes stints in traffic law enforcement, motor racing and rallying and writing for a variety of local and international publications. He has covered countless events, ranging from world motor shows and Formula 1 Grands Prix to Targa tarmac and round-the-houses meetings. A motoring tragic, he has owned more than 90 cars. Somewhat of a nostalgic, he has a special interest in classic cars. He is the father of Targa star Robert Buys, who often adds his expertise to Bill’s reviews.