Emotional victory in Belgium first step on path to Charles Leclerc achieving greatness

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As Charles Leclerc jumped out of the seat of his iconic Ferrari to celebrate a maiden victory in Formula One, the emotion of a devastating weekend was worn across his young face.

The sheer delight of a race win, sprinkled with a sense of loss following the horrible accident that claimed the life of Formula Two driver Anthoine Hubert on Saturday.

At just 21, Leclerc has grown accustomed to loss.

He is the godson of Jules Bianchi, who died in 2015, following a crash in the Japanese Grand Prix 10 months earlier. His father died two years ago, just days before Leclerc won the Baku GP2 race.

The joy of victory in Belgium was no doubt balanced by the despair of losing a friend he’d known for more than a decade.

His first French Championship race was with Hubert back in 2005 and the pair had remained friends since. Hubert was killed following a horror 170mph crash during a Formula 2 race on the same track.

It’s at sad times like this that the motorsport community draw together, and although it is hard to focus and enjoy the race weekend itself, the show goes on.

Leclerc’s epitomised that with his professional manner before and after the race, his composure behind the wheel and admirable words in triumph after the race.

The Monaco native comfortably brought his Ferrari home ahead of a chasing Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes. And as he said on the Ferrari team radio after the race, his first win was the culmination of a lifelong dream, but impossible to enjoy given the circumstances.

Despite the sombre atmosphere around Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, it was clearly a bittersweet moment to secure a first win and a relief for Ferrari to soar to their first victory since Kimi Raikkonen’s win in the US Grand Prix last October.

Leclerc was relatively unchallenged throughout the race, though he was fortunate that Ferrari gave Sebastian Vettel team orders to give Leclerc the lead on lap 27.

The strategy was perfect given Leclerc had favourable race speed. For the next few laps, Vettel did a stellar job to hold Hamilton back and allow Leclerc to stretch his advantage to 6.9 seconds.

Though his superb defending did help Leclerc to victory, it proved to be another disappointing day for Vettel, who finished fourth despite starting from second on the grid.

Vettel is now 21 races without a win – ironically his last win came at last season’s Belgian GP. Leclerc has one victory in just his 13th race for Ferrari and only his second season in F1.

Some F1 enthusiasts may suggest Leclerc is making Vettel look average. But that’s a measure of how talented he is and how he continues to improve with each race.

He has beaten his more experienced team-mate Vettel in five of the last seven races, and outqualified the elder statesman in six-successive races.

As ever, it bodes the question as to whether Leclerc should be the number one driver at Ferrari for the remaining races this season?

It’s too early to say after just one victory.

Vettel is one of the best drivers of this era with four champions wins, but Leclerc is clearly getting better as each race weekend passes.

The German is fourth in the championship and a commanding 99 points behind Hamilton. Leclerc, meanwhile, is fifth and would have won in Bahrain in March had his car not lost power with 12 laps remaining.

Leclerc needs more time and if he keeps it up this level of performance then he will definitely become the Scuderia’s premier driver at some point over the next year or two.

Vettel fought hard to try and match Hamilton in 2017 and 2018 championships, but ultimately failed against a better competitor in the Briton. Leclerc looks a real menace and perhaps the shining hope to help steer Ferrari to a first championship since 2007.

It might not fully come together for Leclerc this year, but he looks a future world champion in the making.

For now, the focus for both Ferrari drivers should be to make a fight of this championship after the opening half was dominated by Mercedes. They won 10 times in 12 races.

A confident Leclerc and a resilient Vettel have the class and searing race craft to limit the Silver Arrows’ excellence.

Next week presents the ideal opportunity at the home of Ferrari in Monza.

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Emotional Charles Leclerc registers maiden Formula One win at the Belgian Grand Prix

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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

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Charles Leclerc secures pole for Belgium Grand Prix as Ferrari dominates Mercedes

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Charles Leclerc thrashed Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel to claim pole position for the Belgian Grand Prix.

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

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