There was no customary champagne-spraying. The motor racing world was in mourning.
“On one hand a childhood dream has been realised,” Leclerc said. “On the other hand it has been a very difficult weekend. I have lost a friend. I would like to dedicate my first win to him.”
Two hours earlier, Leclerc, who grew up racing Hubert, had lined shoulder to shoulder with the sport’s grief-ridden community for an emotional one-minute silence in honour of his contemporary.
The 22-year-old Hubert died at 6.35pm on Saturday following a catastrophic 160mph Formula Two crash at the fearsome Eau Rouge corner.
Hubert’s distraught mother, Nathalie, took centre stage on the grid. Dressed in a green jumper, blue jeans, and hiding her eyes behind a dark pair of sunglasses, Nathalie was at the scene of her son’s death after making the five-hour car journey from her home outside Paris to Belgium.
Nathalie held her son’s pink and white crash helmet. Hubert’s brother Victhor, who was trackside with father Francois as Saturday’s tragedy unfolded, cried as he stood alongside her. Formula One drivers, team bosses and dignitaries formed an arc around the mother and son as silence fell over the Ardennes forest.
Daniel Ricciardo, the usually jovial Australian, kept his eyes closed throughout the reflective pause, before appearing to wipe away tears – his actions summing up the sombre mood here before yesterday’s race.
Leclerc hugged Hubert’s mother. Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto then put an arm around his young star. Speaking prior to the race, Binotto said: “It is not easy for Charles. He knew Hubert very well, but he also knows a win is the best way to keep his head up.”
The 21-year-old Leclerc did just that. He made the perfect start, racing away from pole position. Leclerc briefly traded places with Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel, owing to different tyre strategies, but once the four-time world champion was ordered aside, the Monegasque’s win rarely looked in doubt – even though Lewis Hamilton ran the youngster close. Hamilton finished one second behind Leclerc to extend his title lead over Valtteri Bottas, who took third, to 65 points.
Leclerc led as the tens of thousands of spectators at the 4.3-mile track rose to their feet for a round of heartfelt applause on lap 19. Hubert carried the No 19 on his car. “We grew up together,” said Leclerc as he reflected on their friendship. “Losing Anthoine takes me back to 2005 and my first French championship.
“There was him, Esteban [Ocon – Mercedes reserve driver], Pierre [Gasly – Toro Rosso driver] and myself. We were four kids dreaming of getting to Formula One. We have grown up in karting together, so to lose him is a big shock for me, and everyone in the sport.
“It was definitely the first situation for me where I have lost someone and then raced the following day. It is obviously quite challenging to close the visor and go through the exact corner [where he died] at the same speed as I did the day before.
“It is difficult to enjoy this victory, but hopefully in two or three weeks I will realise what happened.”
Following Leclerc’s faultless start, Max Verstappen bumped wheels with Kimi Raikkonen. The force of the impact sent Raikkonen temporarily on to two wheels. Verstappen sustained damage to his Red Bull and slammed into the barriers at the top of Eau Rouge. The sport held its breath, but mercifully Verstappen walked away unscathed from the high-speed shunt.
Leclerc’s victory at his 34th attempt ensures he becomes the third-youngest winner in the sport’s history.
Vettel finished fourth after a two-stop tyre strategy backfired. British teenager Lando Norris was cruelly denied a career-best fifth when his McLaren conked out following an engine failure on the last lap.