By Abhishek Takle
SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (Reuters) – Charles Leclerc claimed a bittersweet first Formula One win on Sunday, the Monegasque’s joy at fulfilling a long-held dream tempered by the death of French racer Anthoine Hubert.
Leclerc crossed the line 0.9 seconds ahead of a hard-charging Lewis Hamilton, who still extended his overall championship lead to 65 points over Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas who finished third.
Hubert, 22, lost his life on Saturday after sustaining injuries in a high-speed accident during a Formula Two race at the same Spa-Francorchamps track that hosts Formula One.
The first driver fatality at a Formula One race weekend since Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed at Imola in 1994 plunged the sport into mourning.
Formula One held a minute’s silence in memory of Hubert on the grid before the race and a sombre mood hung over the paddock.
Leclerc, who raced with Hubert early in his career, was among those most affected and dedicated the win to him.
“My first ever race I did it with Anthoine, Esteban (Ocon), Pierre (Gasly),” said the Ferrari driver, who looked up to the sky when he got out of his car, after scoring the Italian team’s first win of the season.
“I can’t fully enjoy my first victory, but it will definitely be a memory I will keep forever.”
The Monegasque made a good start, leading unchallenged into the tight La Source hairpin.
Team mate Sebastian Vettel, second on the grid, went wheel to wheel with Hamilton who was third.
The Briton briefly got ahead but Vettel used the straightline speed of his Ferrari to sail past on the run up to Les Combes.
Hamilton finally got past Vettel on the 32nd lap, with the German a sitting duck on fading tyres, and set off in pursuit of Leclerc.
For a few nail-biting laps it looked like Leclerc, denied victory by an engine problem in Bahrain and passed for the lead by Max Verstappen two laps from the end in Austria, might miss out again.
But he soaked up the pressure from the faster Mercedes, notputting a foot wrong until the laps ran out.
“The Ferraris were just too fast on the straights and very hard to keep up to keep up with them,” said Hamilton.
“He’s had it coming all year so I’m really happy for him,” he added of Leclerc’s victory.
Vettel, hunting for his first win since last year’s Belgian race, finished fourth.
The German was tricked into pitting early by Mercedes.
While the early stop initially gave him an advantage that put the four-times champion in the lead, he eventually began to run out of grip.
He was ordered to make way for Leclerc, who was clearly faster, before stopping for a second time on the 33rd lap.
His only consolation was scoring the single point on offer for setting the fastest lap.
“I couldn’t stay with the pace that I had to,” said Vettel.“Then we covered for Lewis and at that point we pitted way earlier than everyone else and that determined the race result.”
Alexander Albon was an impressive fifth on his Red Bull debut.
The Thai rookie, promoted from Toro Rosso to the former champions in a swap with Frenchman Gasly, had started 17th due to an engine-related grid penalty.
His team mate Max Verstappen collided with Kimi Raikkonen at the start before retiring on the opening lap in an incident that brought out the safety car.
Antonio Giovinazzi crashed his Alfa Romeo on the exit of the Pouhon corner as the leaders came through on their final lap.
McLaren’s Carlos Sainz retired with a loss of power on the second lap.
His team mate Lando Norris was running a strong fifth but stopped on the final lap and was classified 11th.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)