GRR

Four talking points from the Belgian GP

01st September 2019
Goodwood Road & Racing

Twenty-one-year-old Charles Leclerc scored his maiden Formula 1 victory in convincing style at the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday, but there was only one young man on everyone’s mind at Spa-Francorchamps. The death of 22-year-old Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert in a crash on Saturday afternoon shattered the world of motor racing and reminded us all – in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable – that while safety is vastly improved in the modern era, this remains a mortally dangerous sport.

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Anthoine Hubert

The Renault protégé and reigning GP3 champion lost his life in an accident at Raidillon at the top of Eau Rouge that also involved Sauber Junior Team driver Juan Manuel Correa and Trident’s Giuliano Alesi. Correa suffered leg and spinal injuries and is said to be stable, but at 6.35pm the racing world received the type of statement all too familiar from dark days of the past: that Hubert had succumbed to his injuries.

The outpouring of tributes and genuine sorrow was truly touching, as the motor racing community came together to honour one of its own – and a young man who had appeared to have a bright future. Already at the hem of F1, F2 rookie Hubert was all set for another season in the category in 2020 but was in the frame for a grand prix graduation thereafter.

But much more than a lost talent, motorsport was mourning a popular and vibrant character who was only just starting out in life. Motor racing can be so cruel.

As for the circumstances, there will be an investigation as there must be, this being the first death in an FIA championship race since Jules Bianchi received what would eventually prove to be fatal injuries in an accident at the Japanese GP in 2014. But Eau Rouge and Raidillon are among the world’s most famous sections of race track for good reason. Safety improvements have been made over the years, but by their very nature these fast and dramatic sweeps are always going to present a risk – one that Hubert relished as much as every other driver who takes them on. Sadly, even now, such tragedy goes with the territory.

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Leclerc wins at last

At last? This was only the Monegasque’s 34th grand prix in his second season, so he’s hardly waited long for his first win. But it says much about his standing in F1 that it’s faintly surprising it has taken him this long.

Leclerc’s breakthrough – a grand prix winner in a Ferrari, which sounds pretty sweet in any language – was clearly overshadowed, as he admitted so eloquently after taking the flag. But first wins are always special, and this one was particularly classy.

He was the fastest all weekend and even when team-mate Sebastian Vettel jumped him in the pitstops, there was only a moment of doubt that he would reassert himself. Indeed, Ferrari calmly called for Vettel to give way as the team recognised who was in the stronger position in the chase for its first victory of the season.

And a chase it was as Lewis Hamilton threatened to do what he had done so effectively to Max Verstappen in Hungary.

In the end, the five-time champ ran out of laps as he hunted Leclerc and didn’t quite have enough steam to catch and pass the Ferrari. In these moments, Leclerc was particularly impressive. Earlier on he’d run wide and cut the chicane at Les Combes, but now when it really counted he was faultless and kept his cool to deliver a deserved and historic victory – the first for a driver from Monaco in the world championship era, and surely the first of many for a one of F1’s brightest new stars.

And all a week before Monza. The Italian Grand Prix promises to be red hot as the tifosi welcomes a new hero to their beloved circuit for the first time as one of their own.

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Verstappen’s woe, Albon’s joy

It’s a sign of Max Verstappen’s growing maturity and consistency that this, the 13th race of 2019, was the first of the season he has failed to finish.

But the Dutchman’s collision with Kimi Räikkönen at La Source after the start shows that the old impetuous tendencies have not been completely driven out of his character.

The hairpin is famously tight and draws first-lap accidents all too easily. Verstappen didn’t need to dive into that gap, and Räikkönen was well within his rights to turn in. Had he been patient, Max would likely have passed the Alfa Romeo on the Kemmel Straight anyway. Sure, he was keen to chase the Mercedes and the Ferraris and not lose vital ground – but in the wider context the move was neither smart nor really on.

Verstappen’s subsequent shunt at Eau Rouge, caused by broken front suspension, could have been much nastier – on this of all weekends. But no doubt he will reset for Monza and hopefully the new, more mature version will also return.

As for his new team-mate, this couldn’t have been a better start for Alexander Albon. Engine penalties took the pressure off the Thai driver in qualifying because starting only 17th was nothing to do with him. But at a circuit where overtaking is common, he had to put in a strong race performance – and that is emphatically what he delivered.

To finish fifth, behind the two Ferraris and two Mercedes, was the perfect validation for Red Bull switching Albon for Pierre Gasly during the summer break. Albon pulled off some smart overtaking moves, his sweep around the outside of Daniel Ricciardo at the No Name left-hander particularly noteworthy – although the pass of Sergio Perez on the grass along Kemmel on the last lap was also pretty special. Shades of Mika Häkkinen versus Michael Schumacher there! Bravo.

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Pain for Norris

But Albon wouldn’t have been fifth without terrible misfortune for Lando Norris. The British rookie had driven brilliantly all day for McLaren, only for an engine problem to drop him into anti-stall with a lap to run and rob him of a best F1 finish yet.

Norris was the main beneficiary of the Verstappen/Räikkönen collision at La Source, as the inside line he’d taken opened up for him on the way out of the hairpin. But fifth would have been his on merit. As we’ve said of Leclerc on other occasions, Lando’s day will come.

But Belgian GP joy and disappointment were all put into sharp context by the shadow of what had happened at Raidillon on Saturday afternoon. Anthoine Hubert died doing what he loved. He will not be forgotten.

Photography courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Formula 1

  • F1 2019

  • F2 2019

  • Formula 2

  • Anthoine Hubert

  • Charles Leclerc

  • Sebastian Vettel

  • Lando Norris

  • Max Verstappen

  • Alexander Albon

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