Impressive Leclerc nets maiden grand prix victory – dedicates win to Hubert

Charles Leclerc resisted a late charge from Lewis Hamilton to secure his maiden Formula One win in the Belgian Grand Prix.

The Monegasque had twice come within touching distance of victory this season, losing the Bahrain GP due to an engine problem and being overtaken by Max Verstappen towards the end in Austria, and again seemed in danger when Hamilton upped his pace in the final laps.

However, Leclerc held on to take Ferrari’s first victory of the 2019 campaign at Spa-Francorchamps, pipping the five-time world champion by 0.981 seconds.

Leclerc, who was joined on the podium by Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas after team-mate Sebastian Vettel was forced to make two pit stops, dedicated his success to Anthoine Hubert, who was killed in a Formula 2 race at Spa on Saturday.

“This one is for Anthoine,” an emotional Leclerc was heard saying on team radio after taking the chequered flag. “Feels good but difficult to enjoy on a weekend like this. But thanks for everything, guys, you’re the best. A dream come true anyway.”

With the high-speed nature of Spa favouring the low-downforce SF90 and its standard-setting power unit package, Ferrari were widely regarded as the team to beat in Belgium, Leclerc’s qualifying advantage of 0.763 seconds over Hamilton underlining the Prancing Horse’s advantage over a single lap.

Starting second – the position from which he won last year’s Belgian GP – Vettel would have been confident of using the tow to good effect at the start of the race but, not for the first time this season, the four-time world champion was outclassed by his 21-year-old team-mate.

An average getaway allowed Hamilton to attack down the inside of La Source, with Vettel taking to the run-off area on the outside of the first corner, falling behind his old rival and ensuring that, rather than challenging Leclerc for the lead, his opening lap would be spent fighting the Mercedes drivers.

Further back, Verstappen’s attempt to make up for a slow start saw the Dutchman collide with Kimi Raikkonen at La Source, pitching the Alfa Romeo into the air and damaging the front-left area of the Red Bull, which broke upon entry to Eau Rouge and left the crowd favourite in the barrier.

The resulting Safety Car period – extended by an extra lap to allow marshals to clear Carlos Sainz’s stricken McLaren – offered Vettel, who’d used Ferrari’s straight-line speed advantage to reclaim second place from Hamilton on the Kemmel straight, another opportunity to pressurise Leclerc.

Again, though, it was wasted. On cold tyres and brakes, Vettel locked up at La Source and allowed Leclerc to scurry away at the restart on Lap 5, though the Ferrari’s considerable grunt protected him from Hamilton on this occasion.

Leclerc established a lead of 1.6 seconds on the first racing lap and was comfortable for much of the first stint despite a minor off-track excursion at Les Combes on Lap 9.

Meanwhile, Vettel continued to struggle to fend off Hamilton and was forced into an early pit stop on Lap 15 in an effort to guard against the undercut. Such was the German’s pace on fresh mediums, however, that Vettel was propelled into the lead when Leclerc, Hamilton and Bottas made their stops on Laps 21, 22 and 23 respectively, the British driver’s 3.6-second stop ultimately proving crucial in the final results.

Vettel’s time at the front was short-lived, with the German obeying Ferrari’s instructions to let a charging Leclerc past on the main straight on Lap 27 before airing concerns about the state of his tyres and soon coming under pressure from Hamilton.

For all Ferrari’s speed in a straight line, Hamilton – having been held up by Vettel for a few crucial laps – completed a DRS-assisted move into Les Combes on Lap 32, with the German diving into the pits for softs on the following lap.

Vettel’s hopes of salvaging a podium finish all but ended when he ran wide at Les Combes, by which point Hamilton was making serious inroads into Leclerc’s lead.

A gap of 1.5 seconds separated the pair as the final lap began as the Mercedes’ pace in the twisty middle sector outshone the Ferrari’s straight-line speed, but Hamilton ran out of laps as Leclerc finally got over the line.

“It’s been a very difficult race,” Leclerc told former grand prix driver David Coulthard in the pre-podium interviews. “We’ve been struggling quite a bit with the tyres towards the end but a lot of happier than what I’ve done in Budapest on my side. I’ve managed the tyres better. The Mercedes were very quick in the race and we expected it yesterday but in the end it’s a good weekend performance-wise, pole position and the first victory, so I’m quite satisfied.”

Hamilton, who leads the drivers’ standings by 65 points with eight races remaining, told Coulthard: “I gave it absolutely everything that I had. A really difficult race today. The Ferraris were just too fast on the straights and it’s very, very, very hard to keep up with them. I got as close as I could at the end.”

Alexander Albon made a solid start to life at Red Bull, using an alternative strategy to surge from 17th on the grid to fifth following the final-lap retirement of McLaren’s Lando Norris.

Albon passed Sergio Perez on the final lap but despite the disappointment of dropping to sixth, it was a productive weekend for Acronis partner team SportPesa Racing Point, who claimed their second double-points finish of 2019 with Lance Stroll bouncing back from a grid penalty to finish 10th.

Daniil Kvyat continued his fine form to finish seventh, while Nico Hulkenberg added to Renault’s points tally with eighth place and Pierre Gasly rediscovered his 2018 form to finish ninth in his first race back at Toro Rosso.

Oliver Harden

Sportswriter, F1 columnist.