Ferrari’s powerful engine made it favourite to win its first race of 2019 at the power-sensitive Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, and Leclerc marked himself as the man to beat with a dominant third career pole position on Saturday afternoon.
But his attempt to convert pole to victory began shrouded by grief for the death of racing driver Anthoine Hubert, who lost his life in a horrific crash in the Formula Two feature race on Saturday evening. The 22-year-old Frenchman had been a friend of the Monegasque Ferrari driver, the pair’s junior careers intertwined, and Hubert had seemed destined to join Leclerc in Formula One after claiming the GP3 title last season.
But despite the sombre mood Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said his young charge was “willing to win” to deliver for his team and fallen friend, and from lights-out Leclerc drove determinedly to claim his first win.
He had no trouble getting away cleanly and building a gap, but alongside him teammate Sebastian Vettel, starting from second place, ran wide at the first turn and allowed Lewis Hamilton to slip past him. The Briton held the place only momentarily, however and Vettel easily pulled back past the Mercedes driver down the Kemmel Straight in the first of several examples of Ferrari’s superior engine power
But Vettel couldn’t use his straight-line speed to follow Leclerc into the distance, allowing Hamilton to keep him honest by threatening him out of the first turn every lap, albeit lacking the ultimate speed to get the job done.
Ferrari decided to roll the dice with its lagging driver, stopping him early for new tyres on lap 15 to dare the Mercedes cars to follow him.
But neither Hamilton nor Valtteri Bottas in third took the bait, choosing instead to keep their eyes on the leading Ferrari. All three stayed out, their ageing soft tyres losing grip all the time, until lap 21, when Leclerc finally blinked and made his sole pit stop. Hamilton and Bottas followed suit on the following two tours.
The fresher rubber enabled all three to close down Vettel with ease, but while Ferrari ordered the German to let Leclerc past and rebuild his buffer, he was subsequently deployed to slow the Mercedes drivers to protect his teammate’s lead at the expense of his own result. His efforts were successful, and by the time Hamilton made it past on lap 32 Leclerc had sprinted to a six-second lead with 12 laps remaining.
The Briton made only small progress at first, but as the race wore on so too did Leclerc’s tyres, and with fives laps to go the gap began shrinking dramatically until only one second separated them on the final lap.
Hamilton dragged Leclerc down the Kemmel Straight and closed onto his gearbox through the middle sector, but the Ferrari’s powerful engine kept him at arm’s length on the run to the final chicane, extinguishing the final passing opportunity and guaranteeing Charles his first F1 victory.
“It’s been a very difficult race,” Leclerc conceded. “We were struggling quite a bit with the tyres towards the end.
“The Mercedes were very quick in the race, as we expected yesterday, but in the end it was a very good weekend performance-wise.”
But the Monegasque’s celebrations were muted by the memory of Anthoine Hubert.
“I would like to dedicate my first win to him,” he said soberly. “We’ve lost a friend.
“We grew up together. My first ever race I did with Anthoine. It’s just a shame what happened yesterday. I can’t enjoy fully my first victory.
“On one hand a dream since being a child that has been realised; on the other hand it’s been a very difficult weekend since yesterday.”
Hamilton finished second, and the Briton paid tribute to Leclerc for winning his first race.
“Congratulations to Charles,” he said. “He’s had it coming all year, so I’m really happy for him.
“I gave it absolutely everything I had. A really difficult race today — the Ferraris were just too fast on the straights, it was very hard to keep up with them.”
Bottas passed Vettel for third on lap 33, and though Ferrari brought its man in for a late switch to soft tyres, he ran out of time to threaten the Finn’s position on the podium and took the chequered flag fourth with a consolation point for fastest lap.
Thai driver Alex Albon finished a feisty fifth on debut for Red Bull Racing after starting 17th on the grid with a slew of engine penalties. The 23-year-old made slow progress during the first stint on the medium tyre, but on new soft rubber from lap 23 his car came alive, allowing him to slice through the field and into the points.
His final pass came on the last lap, slipstreaming past Racing Point’s Sergio Perez out of Eau Rouge to take sixth place and he picked up an extra place when McLaren’s Lando Norris, who’d spent almost the entire race comfortably in fifth, suffered a cruel engine failure as he crossed the start-finish line to begin his final lap.
Daniil Kvyat was similarly impressive for Toro Rosso, rising from a penalised 19th to seventh after making up a sensational eight places on the first lap.
Nico Hulkenberg claimed four precious points in an otherwise disappointing day for Renault. Hulkenberg and teammate Daniel Ricciardo started 12th and 10th respectively, but both lost places in the chaos of the first turn and were forced to fight back to take the chequered flag in the top 10.
Pierre Gasly acquitted himself well on his return to Toro Rosso with a ninth-place finish, keeping Racing Point’s Lance Stroll at bay by just 0.6 seconds as they crossed the line.