The 2019 Formula 1 season resumed following a summer hiatus at the Belgian Grand Prix on a weekend that was overshadowed by tragedy.

Charles Leclerc claimed a long-awaited maiden F1 victory having held off a late attack from championship leader Lewis Hamilton, but the weekend will be remembered for a terrible crash in a Formula 2 support race that resulted in the death of French driver Anthoine Hubert.

Here are some of the main talking points from the Belgian Grand Prix…

Leclerc’s message to Vettel, Ferrari

Leclerc laid down the biggest statement of intent yet since his arrival at Ferrari with a crushing display at Spa-Francorchamps.

The 21-year-old Monegasque topped two of the three practice sessions in Belgium (all of which ended up being Ferrari 1-2s) before storming to a dominant pole position - his third of 2019 - by a massive margin of 0.748s ahead of his more experienced teammate Sebastian Vettel. It also marked the sixth time in a row he has out-qualified Vettel this season.

Leclerc crucially held onto first place on the opening lap and quickly began to establish himself into a comfortable lead over Vettel having made a fast restart following an early Safety Car period.

He looked in control throughout and only briefly lost first place during the pit stop window when Ferrari switched Vettel onto an offset strategy to cover the emerging threat from the Mercedes duo headed by Hamilton behind.

Stopping six laps later, Leclerc returned to the circuit in second place but was soon able to cut the deficit to his four-time world champion teammate on fresher Medium tyres, before Ferrari instructed Vettel to allow Leclerc back through into the lead on Lap 27.

He duly obliged and went on to play a crucial role in Leclerc’s victory by delaying Hamilton’s pursuit. Vettel managed to hold Hamilton at bay for five laps, enabling Leclerc to open up some vital breathing space.

Hamilton eventually surged past Vettel on Lap 32 but had fallen seven seconds adrift of Leclerc by this stage. The Briton turned in a late charge and closed to within a second on the final lap, but Leclerc held firm to seal his and Ferrari’s first win of 2019.

The way in which Leclerc was able to soak up so much pressure throughout the 44-lap event was an impressive feat made even more remarkable considering he had just lost one of his close friends the previous day.

Leclerc has faced personal tragedy before in his career - having lost his godfather Jules Bianchi and father Herve in recent years - but his mental strength has continuously prevailed, which alongside his overwhelming talent, is helping him turn into a force to be reckoned with.

Having put the rookie errors that tarnished the early part of his season behind him, Leclerc now finds himself just 12 points behind Vettel with eight rounds to go and is hitting the sort of form that could see him put in a challenge to become Ferrari’s new lead driver.

Albon shines on Red Bull bow

Following a mid-season driver shuffle in the Red Bull ranks, with Pierre Gasly being demoted to Toro Rosso amid a tough start to life at the Milton Keynes squad, Alexander Albon was chosen as his replacement in a direct swap.

Having contested just 12 grands prix for Toro Rosso, Albon admitted the prospect of being fast-tracked into the Red Bull hotseat alongside the ever-improving Max Verstappen was akin to being thrown in at the “deep end”.

But the quietly confident, unassuming British-born Thai driver adapted immediately to his new surroundings at Spa and took little time to display the sort of form that had prompted Red Bull’s hierarchy to gamble on evaluating him for the remaining nine races of the year, before it makes a call on its best option to partner Verstappen for 2020.

Red Bull had taken some of the pressure away from its new driver by opting to fit a new power unit from engine suppliers Honda, meaning Albon would start towards the back of the grid.

But he went on to turn in a drive on Sunday that left a strong impression on Red Bull. From 17th on the grid, Albon slowly but decisively carved his way through the field, before his race pace came alive in the second stint.

Albon surged into the top 10, pulling off a stunning around-the-outside overtake on former Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo at Turn 11. On the final lap of the race, he bravely passed Sergio Perez’s Racing Point along the Kemmel Straight, putting two wheels on the grass at high-speed in the process as he took fifth place - his best result in F1 to date.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner led the plaudits, saying Albon had “made a very favourable impression” on the entire squad.

“Alex has impressed me all weekend with his approach, his feedback, his pace,” he said

“In the race he did a very mature job. The first half of the race we weren’t quite as competitive on the harder tyre as we were on the softer tyre but he didn’t make any silly mistakes or take any silly risks. He just dialled himself in.”

McLaren’s reliability woes

McLaren endured a Belgian GP to forget as the team suffered race-ending reliability failures on both its cars at Spa.

Firstly, Carlos Sainz Jr’s car shutdown with a loss of power in the opening laps, before Lando Norris was cruelly robbed of what would have been his best-ever result in F1 following a stellar drive.

The Briton made an excellent start and found himself in fifth on the opening lap, a position he would retain all the way throughout the race until the penultimate lap, when, his MCL34 conked out along the start-finish straight.

It meant McLaren failed to score points for the first time in five races as the team missed the chance to put further daylight between itself and the rest of the midfield pack.

Toro Rosso made marginal gains on the Woking squad by recording a double points finish with Daniil Kvyat taking seventh, two places ahead of new teammate Gasly, while Racing Point also capitalised to enjoy one of its strongest performances of the season so far.

A sixth place finish for Perez, coupled with another charging recovery drive from the rear of the grid to the top 10 for Lance Stroll, helped the Silverstone-based outfit close to within three points of sixth-placed Renault in the constructors’ championship as the battle for midfield supremacy continues to hot up.

Fitting tribute for Hubert

The sudden death of F2 racer Hubert sent shockwaves throughout the F1 paddock and wider motorsport community during the Belgian GP weekend.

Hubert passed away aged 22 after succumbing to injuries he sustained in a violent crash during the opening F2 race of the weekend on Saturday, which occurred within hours of the conclusion of F1 qualifying.

Sunday’s F2 sprint race was cancelled out of respect to the Frenchman, while a number of tributes took place, with an emotional minute’s silence being observed prior to the start of both the Formula 3 and F1 events, as well as some special tributes being carried on the liveries of the team’s cars and driver's helmets.

The impact was felt across the paddock, with close friends Pierre Gasly and Leclerc both paying their respects to a man they had grown up with and raced against through the junior levels of motorsport.

Understandably, there was a sombre atmosphere on the grid on Sunday but once the visors came down and the lights went out, the 20 drivers somehow managed to switch focus onto what they do best; flat-out, relentless racing.

Within seconds of the race start, they found themselves hurtling up Eau Rouge and past the scene of the accident that had cost the life of a fellow competitor less than 24 hours earlier.

As Hamilton summarised afterwards: “It was not the best of weekends for the sport. Yesterday [Saturday] was a very tough day and even today [Sunday] just coming here. But I had to go out there and we all had to just try and clear our thoughts and try and race with Anthoine in spirit.”

Gladiatorial battles raged throughout the order, with contact often occurring and brave overtakes being pulled off, including Albon’s last-lap, two-wheels-on-the-grass pass on Perez.

Ultimately it was Leclerc, who rather fittingly, came out on top to win. Visibly emotional, he made a touching post-race speech to dedicate his Belgian GP victory to a young man who paid the ultimate sacrifice chasing the same dream.

 

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