(CNN)Charles Leclerc claimed the first Formula 1 victory of his young career in the Belgian Grand Prix and dedicated the win to friend Anthoine Hubert, who died following a crash on Saturday.
Hubert was killed after his car was hit side-on at around 160 miles per hour by Juan Manuel Correa’s Sauber during a Formula 2 race on the same track.
“On one hand I’ve got a dream since I was a child that has been realized, but on the other hand, it’s been a very difficult weekend since yesterday,” Leclerc told Sky Sports.
“We lost a friend first of all — I would like to dedicate my first win to him. In my first race, we drove together, it’s a shame what happened yesterday, I can’t enjoy my victory fully.”
For much of the closing stages it looked as though Leclerc would cruise to victory, although Lewis Hamilton put in a scintillating final few laps to close the gap to less than two seconds.
But the 22-year-old showed calmness beyond his years on a day of huge emotion to hold off the Brit’s challenge and earn a much-deserved maiden Grand Prix win and Ferrari’s first victory of the season.
When he emerged from his car after the race, Leclerc closed his eyes and pointed to the sky.
READ: Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert killed in crash at Belgian Grand Prix
Third time’s the charm
On Saturday, the driver from Monaco secured the third pole position of his career, though he had failed to win on either of the previous two occasions. Leclerc was denied near-certain victory in Bahrain when his car lost power with just a few laps remaining.
This, however, was never going to be an easy race to try an convert pole into a victory.
Spa-Francorchamps’ opening corner has played host to some spectacular crashes over the years — including one last season — and this year Max Verstappen was its victim.
The Belgian Grand Prix has become something of a home race for the young driver, who was born in Belgium but races under the Dutch flag. Tens of thousands of Dutch fans cross the border to attend the race every year.
This weekend, however, they will return home disappointed after Verstappen crashed out on lap one following a first-corner collision with Kimi Raikkonen that irreparably damaged his steering.
“It was a poor start, I don’t know why,” Verstappen told Sky Sports. “We’ll look into that. I just braked a little later than the two cars ahead of me. I guess Kimi didn’t expect me to be there anymore and we touched. That’s racing, these things can happen.”
Leclerc’s fast start
Leclerc began his race in perfect fashion, expertly negotiating the first corner to maintain his lead.
German driver Sebastian Vettel initially lost second place to Hamilton before he was able to regain it coming down the straight.
On lap 19, fans joined in a standing ovation for Hubert, who raced as No. 19 for the BWT Arden Formula 2 team.
After the top four of Leclerc, Vettel, Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas — who eventually finished third — had each pitted once for a change of tires, Vettel emerged out in front.
However, on lap 28, the German received team orders from the Ferrari garage to let teammate Leclerc pass him and retake the lead.
The strategy looked to be the correct one, as Leclerc had considerably faster race speed. For the next few laps, Vettel did a stellar job of holding off Hamilton, allowing Leclerc to increase his lead.
Though his driving did ultimately help Leclerc to victory, it was another disappointing day for Vettel, who finished fourth.
Hamilton looked to be catching Leclerc but just ran out of time after 44 grueling laps.
“I gave it absolutely everything that I had,” Hamilton told Sky Sports. “It was a really difficult race, the Ferraris were just too fast on the straights and it was hard to keep up with them. 44 is usually my lucky number but we needed a few more laps.
“But I’m really happy for Charles. It’s been coming for a long time.”