Formula One: Ferrari driver Leclerc wins Belgian GP in solemn atmosphere

Leclerc celebrates on the podium (centre) with second-placed Hamilton (left) and third-placed Bottas.
Leclerc celebrates on the podium (centre) with second-placed Hamilton (left) and third-placed Bottas.PHOTO: REUTERS

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (AP) - Charles Leclerc just held off Lewis Hamilton to win the Belgian Grand Prix from pole position on Sunday (Sept 1), securing the first victory of his Formula One career and ending Ferrari's long wait for a win.

Hamilton was within one second of Leclerc on the final lap, but the 21-year-old from Monaco held his nerve to cross the line just .981 seconds ahead of the five-time F1 champion.

"He was catching very quickly so I had quite a bit of pressure," Leclerc said after his win.

"Every lap my engineer was telling me the gap with Lewis... I think one lap more would have been difficult to keep Lewis behind."

Leclerc dedicated his win to French driver Anthoine Hubert, who died on Saturday following a heavy crash during an F2 race held on the same track. Drivers paid their respects on Sunday.

Leclerk looked back to his karting days with Hubert in France.

"There was him, Esteban (Ocon), Pierre (Gasly) and myself," Leclerc said.

"We were four kids dreaming of Formula One, we've grown up together in karting for many years."

Moments after winning, Leclerc pointed to the sky and then to Hubert's name written on the side of his car.

"To lose him yesterday was a big shock for me. It was a very sad day and difficult to enjoy it fully today," Leclerc said.

"But overall it means a dream come true. Since childhood I've been looking up to Formula One. First a Formula One driver, which happened last year, then driving for Ferrari, and now a first win today."

 
 

Hamilton rates Leclerc extremely highly.

"I was trying to keep up with him but he was very strong. Ultimately he did a superb job," Hamilton said. "I look forward to seeing his growth and racing (against) him."

A ninth win of the season and 82nd overall eluded Hamilton. But he did manage to extend his championship lead from 62 points to 65 because Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas was third, finishing ahead of Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.

Ferrari had not won since former driver Kimi Raikkonen's victory at the United States GP last October - a stretch of 15 races. Vettel is 21 without a win since last season's Belgian GP as his miserable form continued, hardly softened by one extra point for the fastest lap. Vettel is fourth in the championship and a massive 99 points behind Hamilton with eight races remaining.

At the start, Leclerc got away cleanly but Max Verstappen, winner of two of the past four races, went out on Lap 1. Tens of thousands of orange-clad Dutch fans watched in disappointment as Verstappen's Red Bull slid into the barriers after contact with Raikkonen's Alfa Romeo.

Verstappen finished in the top five of all other races this season and it was his first retirement since the Hungarian GP in July last year. He kept hold of third position in the standings but is a distant 87 points behind Hamilton.

Renault driver Carlos Sainz Jr also had to abandon following an early collision. The incidents caused the safety car to come out for four laps, and when the race re-started Vettel maintained his lead but Hamilton closed on Vettel.

"Vettel is struggling," Hamilton said on team radio on Lap 10.

Six laps later, Ferrari brought Vettel in for a tyre change, pushing Hamilton up to second place.

Leclerc came in for his tire change exactly midway through the 44-lap race, putting Hamilton in front. But Mercedes called Hamilton in on the very next lap and made a slow stop of 3.6 seconds - which may ultimately have cost him the win.

When Bottas came in one lap later, Ferrari regained the race lead with Vettel ahead of Leclerc until Vettel obeyed team orders to let Leclerc go past on Lap 27.

Hamilton passed Vettel on Lap 32 to take second place but was still seven seconds behind Leclerc. He ate into that lead so much, though, that Leclerc had only a two-second lead with two laps remaining.

"I gave it absolutely everything," Hamilton said. "I got as close as I could but maybe I needed another couple of laps."

On the last lap, Alfa Romeo's Antonio Giovinazzi crashed but Leclerc stayed focused.

"He had that win coming," Hamilton said of Leclerc, who had taken his third pole position of the season, with Vettel starting from second ahead of Hamilton and Bottas.

Ferrari topped all three practice sessions and all three sections of qualifying, with Leclerc beating Vettel in five of them.

Despite Vettel's titles, Leclerc is clearly emerging as Ferrari's No. 1.

"His results speak for themselves," Hamilton said. "It's not easy for any driver to jump into a top team like Ferrari against a four-time world champion, with much more experience, and then to continuously out-perform, out-qualify and out-drive (him)."