Formula One is back after the summer break to kick off the last leg of the 2019 season. There was a lot of excitement after Ferrari got their second front row lockout of the season. But then the weekend turned tragic after BWT Arden and Renault development Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert lost his life in a crash exiting Radillon on Saturday’s F2 Feature race. The Sunday sprint race was cancelled but we raced on in F1 with heavy hearts. Before the race began, there was a touching tribute and moment of silence for Hubert. The family of Hubert was front and center as they celebrated the life of such a brave individual who gave his life doing what he loved. A very tragic loss as Antoine had a strong future ahead of him after winning in Monaco and France this year. He will always be remembered, and there is no doubt that these F1 drivers raced with heavy hearts as they kept fighting to find more speed — as Hubert would have wanted them to.
In the end, Ferrari flexed their engine straight line speed as well as strong strategy with the heavens shining on Charles Leclerc, who scored his first career F1 victory on a weekend that he lost his good friend Hubert.
Pierre Gasly got points in his first race back with Toro Rosso after being demoted by Red Bull, and Lance Stroll completed the top 10. Also of note, Lando Norris was running fifth until the final lap when his car expired, completing a tough, zero-point weekend for him and McLaren.
At lights out, Leclerc got a great start and led the field away. Hamilton got past Vettel into the first corner. Max Verstappen had a bad start as he was jumped by Perez and Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen squeezed Verstappen into turn one, making contact with Verstappen’s front wheel, and got a bit of air causing good damage. Verstappen had no steering going into Eu Rouge and slid into the barrier, going through Radillion. Daniel Ricciardo got clipped by Stroll, lifting his Renault into the air. All of that carnage brought out the Safety Car on the first lap for the second Spa race in a row.
Carlos Sainz’s car stalled on the grid at the start. He avoided the chaos, but as he came into the pits to check the car and as the team sent the McLaren out on the track, the car stalled again. He eventually stopped his car on the run off area, ending the Spaniard’s day on his birthday.
The Safety Car came in starting lap five when Vettel locked up big time going into turn one, ending his momentum on Leclerc as the young Ferrari driver sped away in the lead by two seconds after lap six.
Ferrari’s straight-line speed wasn’t shocking Mercedes as Hamilton came over the radio on lap six saying, “Vettel’s not that quick.” His race engineer Bono responded, “Their straight line speed is not that impressive.” Mercedes could have been saving their car before giving it a proper go later in the race.
Leclerc locked up after the long straight, going wide and missing the chicane. He still held a 2.3-second lead over Vettel, who was feeling the pressure from Hamilton as he closed to within a second of Vettel for second place. Vettel was clearly struggling on his tires after his lock ups.
Just behind them, the Red Bull driver drama played out further as Alexander Albon got the seat of Gasly after the summer break. But as we raced on lap 12, Albon was only up to 14th after starting 17th due to changing power units. He only overtook Verstappen and Raikkonen after their incident, as well as Ricciardo after he was clipped by Stroll. Meanwhile, Gasly was eliminated in Q1 on Saturday but he was up to eighth, gaining five places off of the start.
Vettel was struggling heavily on lap 16 with Hamilton close behind. To avoid the undercut, Vettel pitted for fresh Mediums. This allowed Hamilton to push and try to close the gap on Leclerc and potentially pull the over-cut on Vettel after Hamilton pitted.
However, Vettel came out of the pits flying and outpaced Hamilton greatly, as well as Leclerc. Vettel was chopping seconds at a time out of Leclerc. By the time Leclerc pitted, Vettel was well under the time it takes to perform a pit stop, and when Leclerc came out of the pit lane, Vettel took the net lead of the Belgium Grand Prix on lap 22 before the Mercedes drivers pitted.
Leclerc was chopping away at Vettel’s lead with much fresher tires. By lap 27, Ferrari made what seemed to be the correct strategy call as they made Vettel let Leclerc by so the two cars did not lose time battling for the lead. Leclerc was then off into the distance and up by 1.6 seconds after a lap.
Vettel’s tires began falling off on lap 28 as Hamilton crept closer. Vettel wanted to make another stop, however Ferrari kept him out to hold Hamilton up from getting into striking distance of Leclerc for the lead.
The battle for second was on. Hamilton made an attempt through the bus stop and had DRS down the long straight after Radillion and got past Vettel for second position. Vettel’s tires fell off enough to fall to fourth-placed Bottas before Ferrari pitted Vettel for fresh soft tires to make a run at the fastest lap and an outside shot of a podium if Bottas’ tires fell off by the end.
Albon pitted for soft tires and began to carve his way through the field. He went from 14th to ninth when he made a gutsy move on the outside of former Red Bull driver Ricciardo for eighth, sending the Red Bull garage into a cheer. It was a strong charge back by Albon in his Red Bull debut.
Leclerc was holding strong in the lead as Hamilton could not cut enough time out of his lead as we approached the final laps of the race. But then Hamilton picked up the pace. He cut the lead down to two seconds with two laps to go. The crowd was on their feet as we watched a young Leclerc, heart beating out of his chest, try to fend off Hamilton for the lead as we approached the final lap. Hamilton was not into DRS range after Raidillon, but Leclerc had DRS from the lapped cars. As the final lap winded down, Hamilton simply ran out of time.
Leclerc has been through so much this season: losing his engine while leading in Bahrain, crashing out of Baku qualifying, forcing him into a recovery drive. Getting the wrong end of the stick in strategy in Monaco to be eliminated in Q1. Being overtaken by Verstappen late in Austria for the win and crashing out of a crazy wet Germany race. Yet he persevered, finally finding the combination of speed and good fortune for both him and Ferrari to speed to his first career F1 victory in Belgium. It was also the first win for Ferrari since the US Grand Prix last season.
A great drive in tribute by Leclerc to get his first win on the weekend that he lost one of his good friends.
F1 returns in a week as the teams head to Italy to race in Monza.