Leclerc digs deep to win on sombre day at Spa

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium -- There was a sombre and subdued atmosphere hanging over the Spa-Francorchamps paddock on Sunday ahead of the grand prix. The day before had brought the tragic news that Anthoine Hubert had succumbed to injuries sustained in a horrible collision with another driver during an F2 race at the Belgian circuit on Saturday afternoon.

Sunday finished with Charles Leclerc dedicating his maiden Formula One win to his friend

A bittersweet day

It was easy to think the occasion might get the better of Leclerc. The Monaco native looked like he had the world on his shoulders before climbing into his car, which started the race from pole position. Twice before he had started there and failed to win -- he was attempting to make it third time lucky with an emotional grief that is hard to imagine.

Speaking after the race, Leclerc said: "Losing Anthoine yesterday brings me back to 2005, my first-ever French championship, there was him, Esteban [Ocon], Pierre [Gasly] and myself. We were four kids who were dreaming of Formula One. We grew up in karting for many, many years, and to lose him yesterday was a big shock for me and for everyone in motorsport."

He had been comforted by Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto when he walked away from a morning tribute to Hubert before the F3 race. Looking at him before the race, I got the impression that there was part of Leclerc that wanted to be anywhere in the world but the circuit wedged inside the Ardennes.

For all of that emotion before the race, there was no sign of him cracking after the lights went out. Aside from one wide moment at Les Combes, it looked like a flawless display inside the cockpit, even when placed under relentless late pressure from the greatest driver of the modern era. Lewis Hamilton closed the gap in the closing stages and joked afterwards that, while 44 is usually is lucky number, he could have done with the race ending a few laps after it did given how close he was at the finish.

It would have been understandable if Leclerc had found the whole thing too much to deal with, given how far back his relationship with Hubert goes.

As he said himself, it might take some time for the result to properly sink in: "Hopefully in two, three weeks I'll realise what happened today."

Leclerc dedicated the victory to his friend, and he was the right winner for this sombre occasion. Hamilton snatching a victory from Leclerc in the closing stages would have left a bitter taste in the mouth (through no fault of Hamilton's), and on such a painful weekend for motor racing, there is some comfort that it ended with a result which would have left Hubert beaming with delight for one of his closest friends in the business.

A mark of respect

On the 19th lap of this race, the crowd dotted around the Spa-Francorchamps circuits stood to their feet to applaud. The number was significant as it was the one carried on Hubert's car this season -- a touching tribute to a young man who seemed to be on a trajectory to a very successful future.

Numero due:

While Leclerc claimed an overdue victory, Sebastian Vettel had an awful afternoon of racing.

After being called in for an earlier-than-anticipated stop, Vettel was soon questioning whether Ferrari had made the right call as Leclerc and Hamilton closed in on him with fresher tyres at mid-distance.

"They are going to walk all over us!" he told Ferrari as Hamilton loomed in his mirrors.

Vettel's lack of pace was so extreme that, having been dispatched by one Mercedes and as Valtteri Bottas closed the gap in the other one, he stopped again for a fresh set of soft tyres. That helped him claim the extra point on offer for fastest lap, but it will be little comfort on a race weekend in which Leclerc looked comfortably quickest from the opening lap of practice.

Vettel offered a bleak assessment of things afterwards.

"I didn't have the pace ultimately," Vettel said. "I was struggling to stay on top of the tyres which normally is not a problem at all. So it was a tough race.

"Obviously from some point onwards, from the first lap onwards, it was clear we won't be in the fight. So all I could do by then was serve the team.

"I was struggling in the corners so that allowed him to get close and then I couldn't hold him off for a very long time. I tried to obviously make him lose time in order to give Charles a cushion. In the end it was just enough, so did the job."

At the start of the season, Ferrari made several team orders calls which favoured Vettel over Leclerc. The rationale made sense at the time -- prioritise the experienced driver over the new arrival -- but the roles reversed in Belgium. Now he finally has that maiden win under his belt Leclerc is looking every bit the driver you would back in any 50/50 situation going forward.

Albon gets his elbows out

Red Bull was very impressed with Alexander Albon's debut in the RB15 after he drove to fifth position. The Thai driver, who swapped drives with Pierre Gasly in August, had some of the pressure of the occasion lifted from his shoulders with a grid penalty for engine changes made to his car, meaning he started at the rear end of the grid.

Team boss Christian Horner warned him he would need to be patient in the race and that the car would likely come alive in the second stint -- that's exactly how it happened, with Albon charging through the field after his car was fitted with soft tyres, the offset strategy to most other drivers ahead of him.

"I felt I really struggled in the first half of that race," Albon said. "I struggled with the tyres, especially trying to get them up to temperature and that whole stint on the medium I was really nowhere. I was expecting to overtake a lot of cars and I didn't.

"So we decided to pit a bit earlier to get on the soft tyres and I felt a lot more comfortable in the car and it all came alive. I had some good battles along the way."

Two standout moments will likely live in the memory of those at Red Bull who are starting the evaluation process. The first was a great overtake on Daniel Ricciardo around the outside of the 'corner with no name', the downhill left-hander after Bruxelles at the beginning of the middle stint.

He followed that up with a ballsy pass of Sergio Perez on the grass running alongside the Kemmel Straight.

Horner said: "I think it was an encouraging start for him. Hopefully he'll have a clean weekend with a straightforward qualifying in Monza. But certainly he's made a very favourable impression with the engineering team and in the garage. Certainly a good start."

Heartbreak for Lando

Lando Norris fell just 7 kilometres short of completing the best drive of his rookie career.

McLaren had expected to struggle at Spa (as it expects to struggle at Monza) and had been significantly off its usual 2019 pace for much of the weekend. Norris seized the initiative early on, making a stunning start, gaining five places on the first lap with some aggressive moves at the first corner.

It put him into a brilliant position for a big haul of points, but all of his efforts were for nought. The 19-year-old reported his car was behaving bizarrely in the closing stages, only for his car to cut out as he approached the start-finish straight for the penultimate corner.

He was left wondering what might have been.

"I was on for my best result, as a team it would have been our joint best result," Norris said. "Things were looking up because for a while I haven't had a great result for myself."

When asked what happened, Norris said: "I don't know exactly. Whatever was giving me power stopped giving me power!"

It might be a bitter result to process for a while, but it is another feather in Norris' cap in what has already been a thoroughly impressive rookie campaign for the grid's only teenage driver.

Running out of excuses

Antonio Giovinazzi was on course for the best result of his 2019 season when he slipped off the road and into the wall at Pouhon. It's one of the most challenging corners at Spa-Francorchamps and he won't be the first driver to have been caught out there, but he's a driver who you feel is running out of chances to make amends from these sorts of situations.

"The car has been really strong today and therefore it's even more disappointing not to finish the race with an accident in the last lap," the out-of-form Italian said after the race. "Our strategy was great and we would have been in the points and for this I feel sorry for everyone in the team, but I guess that's racing."

Giovinazzi has just one point to teammate Kimi Raikkonen's 31. Raikkonen's participation in the race weekend was in doubt at one point having sustained a pulled muscle in his leg, forcing the team to put reserve driver Marcus Ericsson on standby in case he was needed. He wasn't, as it turned out, but a colleague remarked to me on Sunday evening that we might not have seen the last of Ericsson in an F1 paddock this year if Giovinazzi was unable to point to an issue with his car to explain his issue.

The things that matter

It's only fitting that this article ends with some perspective. Until the events of Saturday evening, the story of Pierre Gasly's Belgian Grand Prix was how he dealt with his first race since being demoted from Red Bull and Toro Rosso. The narrative around that switch -- and much of what is talked about in an F1 paddock during a race weekend -- was put into stark perspective by Hubert's incident.

For Gasly, it wasn't just the death of a fellow racing driver. Like Leclerc, he has been close with Hubert from an early age.

"I think it was for sure the most emotional pre-race I ever had because at 22 years old, 23 years old, to live this kind of moments," he said after the race. "You lose one of your best mates, I've grown up with these guys since I was 7 in karting, we've been roommates, we've lived in the same apartment, in the same room, for six years, we've been classmates, I've studied since I was 13 until 19 with him."

The record books will always say Gasly scored two points for ninth position on his return to Toro Rosso, but it's unlikely he will look back on the weekend with much fondness.

Spa this weekend has been a reminder the dangers of motor racing remain, and always will. The motorsport community rallied around its members in a heart-warming fashion afterwards and no doubt the relevant lessons from the accident will be learned in the coming weeks and months.