Charles Leclerc registered the maiden win of his Formula One career after romping to victory at the Belgian Grand Prix.
Less than 24 hours after Leclerc’s French motor racing contemporary, Anthoine Hubert, was killed at the Spa-Francorchamps venue, the young Monegasque driver delivered a dominant display to take the chequered flag in his friend’s honour.
Lewis Hamilton finished second after fighting his way past Sebastian Vettel with 12 laps remaining. Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas also managed to see off Vettel after the Ferrari driver was forced to make an additional stop for tyres.
Hamilton extended his lead over Bottas in the championship to 65 points.
“This one is for Anthoine,” said an emotional Leclerc on the radio.
“It feels good but it is difficult to enjoy a weekend like this.”
He added: “On one hand I have realised a dream, but on the other hand it has been a difficult weekend.
“I have lost a friend, so I would like to dedicate my win to him.
“We have grown up together. It is a shame what happened yesterday, so I cannot enjoy my first victory.”
Leclerc posted a childhood picture with his arm around Hubert upon news of his death following a horrifying 160mph crash in Saturday’s Formula Two race. He accompanied the picture with the words: “I can’t believe it.”
Leclerc, who is 22 next month, the same age as Hubert, was visibly moved by the tragedy. Prior to the race, he hugged Hubert’s mother, Nathalie.
A moment of silence was observed before the race in the French driver’s memory. Nathalie held her son’s pink and white crash helmet. Hubert’s brother, Victhor, stood alongside her as the Formula One and grieving Formula Two drivers formed an arc, bowing their heads in honour of their fallen colleague.
Daniel Ricciardo, the usually jovial Australian, kept his eyes closed throughout the silence and ensuing national anthem. He then appeared to wipe away tears, summing up the sombre mood before the start of Sunday’s race. All 20 of the drivers’ cars were adorned with “Racing for Anthoine” stickers.
Leclerc made the perfect start, racing away to the slow, right-handed La Source turn, to retain the lead. Hamilton, starting from third, got the jump on Vettel before Max Verstappen bumped wheels with Kimi Raikkonen.
The force of the impact sent Raikkonen temporarily on to two wheels. Verstappen sustained damage to his car and slammed into the barriers at the top of Eau Rouge, the corner which claimed Hubert’s life.
Verstappen walked away unscathed from the high-speed shunt, but the safety car was quickly deployed. Vettel had managed to re-pass Hamilton for second on the Kemmel Straight, while British teenager Lando Norris took advantage of the chaotic opening exchanges to move up six spots to fifth.
Following the safety car period, Leclerc retained his lead, with Hamilton hot on Vettel’s heels. The German stopped on lap 16, but it was not until lap 21 that Leclerc dived in for a change of rubber. Hamilton pitted on the next lap.
The early stop had helped Vettel take the lead, but his tyres would not last the course. On lap 27, he was told by Ferrari to move out of Leclerc’s way, which he duly did. Then, on lap 32, Hamilton fought his way past with Vettel struggling on ageing rubber.
Leclerc was six seconds up the road on Hamilton, and the world champion kept Leclerc honest to the flag, crossing the line just one second behind the Ferrari driver.
But Leclerc would hold on to take an emotional victory ahead of Hamilton, Bottas and Vettel.
Norris looked set to claim a career-best fifth in his McLaren, but stopped with an apparent mechanical failure as he began his final lap.
The London-born Alex Albon took the flag in fifth after starting 18th in an impressive start to his Red Bull career.
Copy provided by Press Association Sport
Leclerc beat Vettel to the front slot of the grid by a mighty 0.748 seconds as Ferrari locked out the front row.
Lewis Hamilton finished third, just 0.015secs adrift of Vettel, with Valtteri Bottas fourth in the sister Mercedes. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen finished fifth.
Hamilton’s hopes of participating in qualifying hung in the balance for two hours after he crashed out of final practice.
The world champion lost control of his Mercedes through the right-handed turn 12 and slammed into the barriers.
Hamilton emerged unscathed from his cockpit, but the Briton sustained extensive damage to the front of his car.
As qualifying started, Hamilton’s mechanics were still working on fixing his machine when they were handed a lifeline after Robert Kubica’s caught on fire following an eye-catching engine failure.
The session was suspended for 10 minutes, affording Hamilton’s crew the additional time to complete their repairs. Hamilton left his garage when Kubica’s Williams was removed from danger before safely booking his spot in the second phase of qualifying. Drama over.
Hamilton was in a class of one before the sport’s summer break, winning eight of the 12 rounds, and establishing a commanding lead of 62 points over Mercedes team-mate Bottas.
But the resumption of his campaign has not been straightforward. On Friday, he suffered a throttle pedal failure before his uncharacteristic accident on Saturday morning. For much of the weekend, he has not been able to match Bottas either, but the Englishman found the pace required to beat the Finn and put his Mercedes in a position to threaten Ferrari.
“Final practice was terrible for me because you know how hard the guys work to build those parts and how hard they work to put the car back together,” he said.
“My guys are faultless and I tried to pay them back with a good qualifying session. I am grateful I am third. I am going to give it everything tomorrow and hopefully give these guys a good race.”
The Scuderia have not won this year, but their car works well at the high-speed Spa-Francorchamps track and the Italians will now be firm favourites to take the chequered flag on Sunday.
It has been 12 months since Vettel last tasted victory, dominating at this venue a year ago. But the four-time world champion will have to usurp his team-mate for a much-needed win.
Leclerc has impressed this weekend and, after an engine failure denied him victory in Bahrain, before Verstappen’s fine fightback drive in Austria prevented him from winning in June, the Monegasque will be hoping it is third time lucky as he bids to open his grand prix account.
McLaren have enjoyed a resurgence this season, but the British team have not been up to scratch in Spa.
Lando Norris finished 12th, while his team-mate Carlos Sainz failed to make it out of Q1. The Spaniard qualified 17th.
The London-born Thai Alex Albon will start from the back of the field after he was penalised for a Honda engine upgrade on his Red Bull debut.
Provided by Press Association Sport
Esteban Ocon will join Renault next season after signing a two-year contract.
The 22-year-old Frenchman, who has spent this year on the sidelines after he was dropped by Racing Point, replaces Nico Hulkenberg and will team up with Daniel Ricciardo in 2020.
Ocon’s move to Renault was confirmed following Mercedes’ decision to retain Valtteri Bottas.
Ocon, the Mercedes reserve driver, had been in contention to race alongside Lewis Hamilton before Bottas was kept on for a fourth consecutive year.
“I am pleased that a team with big ambitions has entrusted me with the opportunity to once again demonstrate my skills at the highest level of F1,” said Ocon.
“It is a responsibility I take very seriously. The confidence they have in me to help the progression of the team is a very positive pressure and I look forward to giving the best of myself.”
Ocon began his career with Manor and then raced at Force India for two years before he was replaced by Lance Stroll following his fashion billionaire’s father Lawrence’s takeover of the team.
Ocon, who has a best finish of fifth from his 50 race starts, had then been due to join Renault only for the move to fall through following Ricciardo’s surprise switch from Red Bull.
Renault have struggled this season, and are sixth in the constructors’ standings ahead of the final nine rounds.
Renault team principal Cyril Abiteboul said: “Over his F1 career Esteban has experienced the highs and lows of the sport, and fully understood the need to seize every possible chance.
“Esteban has shown his ability to score points, has great professionalism on and off the track, plus his recent experience as reserve driver to the current world champions will be a valuable asset to the development of our entire team.”
Provided by Press Association Sport