An Emotional First Win for Charles Leclerc
The Formula 1 2019 Belgian Grand Prix took place at the historic Circuit de Spa–Francorchamps, laid out in the beautiful Ardennes forest, near the municipality of Stavelot, Belgium. It marked the 75th running of Belgian Grand Prix, 62nd running at Spa, and 52nd running of Formula 1 world championship round. It was the first round after the summer break when teams are forced to shut down factories for four weeks as per regulations. Ferrari's rising future star Charles Leclerc took a maiden win of his career with the waving of the chequered flag, and he became the first Monegasque driver to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix. Charles Leclerc dedicated his first win to Anthoine Hubert, who died in an accident at the Raidillon curve during F2 feature race, which took place after the F1 qualifying session.
Thursday Pre-Race Preparations
The 2019 Belgian Grand Prix weekend got off to a great start with weather outlook indicating plenty of sunshine. An excellent chance for the teams to utilize the energies they stored during summer break, a time for the drivers to stretch their legs, and plenty of running for spectators to enjoy. Red Bull swapped their drivers during the summer break, with Alexander Albon promoted to senior team Red Bull Racing and Pierre Gasly demoted to Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Thursday is a busy day in the pit lane with many teams showing new parts, modifications, and updates. Top teams with bigger budgets tend to take this opportunity to test one-off ultra-low downforce package in FP 1 on Friday for next event which is Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
Lance Stroll (Racing Point), Alexander Albon (Red Bull), Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo), and Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) started Sunday's race from the back of the grid due to power unit penalties as they opted to take new specification unit. McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr got a 15-place grid drop for taking extra power unit components. Renault pair Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg received a 5-place grid drop for a gearbox change.
The Scuderia Ferraris were the pre-race favourite, and Friday practice seems to confirm it for two reasons. First, the engine is most powerful in a straight line, and second, the design philosophy of low drag and more efficient downforce goes quick in a straight line. Friday analysis showed that the Ferraris were almost 1.2 sec quicker than Mercedes down the home straight, and Mercedes was using a new-spec engine along with all the customer teams.
Long run numbers showed that Mercedes was the team to beat with the Prancing Horse a few tenths behind but ahead of Red Bull who had a problematic Friday as they were unable to find the right downforce balance at the front and rear, but their race pace was close to Ferrari and Mercedes. In the midfield, Racing Point led the midfield on race pace followed by Renault, McLaren, Alfa, and Toro Rosso all within 0.5 sec with Williams at the back. Haas team did not do any long runs, so no data is available for them.
Saturday at the Belgian Grand Prix got off to a bright start with Saturday practice validating the red Ferraris as the favourite for pole position and Mercedes fighting for the second row, and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen fighting with Renault for the third row.
Qualifying on Saturday afternoon was very exciting as the Ferraris were aiming for a front-row lockout, Mercedes trying to get on the front row with a new donkey at the back. Q1 started with a bang as Robert Kubica's (Williams) new-spec Mercedes engine failed and caught fire denting Mercedes confidence, but allowed Mercedes to repair Lewis Hamilton's car after he crashed it heavily during Saturday's practice session. Q1 saw the exit of both Williams and Toro Rosso drivers along with McLaren's Carlos Sainz Jr. Charles Leclerc led the first qualifying session.
Q2 session was again led by the Monegasque but teammate Sebastian Vettel closed the gap to one-tenth with the Silver Arrows 0.6 sec down the road. Lance Stroll, Alexander Albon, Antonio Giovinazzi, Romain Grosjean (Haas) and Lando Norris (McLaren) were knocked out. McLaren did not have any driver in the top ten for the first time since the Spanish Grand Prix.
The final qualifying session is all about putting everything together, and Charles Leclerc was the man to beat after the first run in Q3. On his tail was a Mercedes and his teammate who made a mistake and ended up eight-tenths down. The final run in Q3 saw all of them bunched up at Bus Stop chicane to get a tow from another driver who saw Leclerc start behind his teammate, but he was unfazed and went even quicker than before with a time of 1:42.5. He was 0.7 sec ahead of his teammate and 0.8 sec ahead of Lewis Hamilton. It was Ferrari's 63rd front-row lockout one behind the all-time record held by Mercedes Benz.
Leclerc was thrilled with his third pole of the season and described how good it felt. He added that the first sector wasn't quite what they wanted, but after that, they went in very strong. Leclerc admitted that they needed to work on their pace and should be faster on race day.
Race day start was pretty muted. The Circuit de Spa–Francorchamps air was heavy with grief due to the death of F2 driver Anthoine Hubert (France) during a crash in F2 feature race after qualifying. The race started with a few minutes of silence in memory of the Frenchman, and the crowd clapped on lap 19 of the race because he raced with that car number.
Leclerc made an excellent getaway and led into the first corner, followed by Hamilton. Vettel lost a place to Hamilton at the La Source hairpin, but he quickly claimed the position back on Kemmel Straight and made it a Ferrari 1-2 again. Down the field, Max Verstappen made contact with Kimi Raikkonen at turn 1. He crashed while going through Eau Rouge with suspension damage, which brought out Safety Car. Carlos Sainz’s McLaren was recovered from Bus Stop chicane due to engine failure on the same lap.
Sebastian Vettel pitted early to switch to medium tyres and starting setting purple sectors. He was in the lead when the first round of pit stops was done from his teammate and Lewis Hamilton, but he has to pit again for softs, with Leclerc and Hamilton passing him by, because he ran too long on mediums by pitting early. The pace was impressive but ran out of laps to recover positions.
Charles Leclerc didn't put a foot wrong the whole weekend and never looked like losing it. Mercedes's Lewis Hamilton had superior race pace and might have won, but it was near impossible to overtake the mighty Ferrari engine. Valterri Bottas made it two Mercedes on the Podium. Vettel finished fourth, followed by Alexander Albon who finished his career-best fifth because Lando Norris had power failure on the last lap. Sergio Perez took honours for best of the rest behind top three.
Leclerc recounted how, as a child, he has looked up to Formula 1, "dreaming to be first a Formula 1 driver, which happened last year, then driving for Ferrari this year, and then the first win today" (-Charles Leclerc).
Next up is "Temple of Speed" Monza, a home race for the Red cars. Can they do a back-to-back win, the last of which had been a long time for the Prancing Horses, and can Charles Leclerc win on home debut for the Tifosi? Keep posted!