Leclerc finally clinches first GP win for Ferrari

Race winner Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari celebrates in parc ferme.
© XPB 

Charles Leclerc battled successfully to hold on to victory at Spa, despite late pressure from Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas in the closing laps of the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix.

It's Ferrari's first win of the year, and the maiden F1 career victory for the 21-year-old driver from Monaco after his heartbreaking near-miss earlier in the season at Austria. An early pit stop strategy for Sebastian Vettel left the German in fourth place,

However there was heartbreak for local hero Max Verstappen, who retired on the first lap after damaging the Red Bull's suspension in a clash with Kimi Raikkonen at La Source. McLaren's Lando Norris also suffered a failure on the final lap which robbed him of a certain fifth place.

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari SF90 leads at the start of the race.

There was no question that the atmosphere in the pit lane and on the grid had changed profoundly overnight. As if consciously reflecting the sombre mood in the paddock, the skies over Spa were also full of looming dark clouds which threatened rain that ultimately did not materialise. The hot sunshine of Saturday had been replaced by much cooler conditions and a fresh breeze that sent shivers down the spines of all the drivers, team personnel and track workers assembled for a moment's silence marking the passing of Formula 2 talent Anthoine Hubert.

But when the moment came for the racing to get underway, such thoughts had to be put aside. As the lights went out, there was no hesitation as Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel launched from the front row and charged down into La Source. Leclerc was able to take control of the apex and sprinted away, but Lewis Hamilton took the opportunity to ambush Vettel for second place. However it was a short-lived success, Vettel using the Ferrari's superior straight line speed to reclaim the position into Les Combes.

Local favourite Max Verstappen had a poor launch from fifth place on the grid, and sought to reclaim the lost positions by taking the inside line into the first hairpin only to make contact with Kimi Raikkonen. The impact briefly tipped the Alfa Romeo onto two wheels, while also damaging the left front suspension of the Red Bull. Verstappen was able to limp up the hill, but the suspension finally gave way heading into Eau Rouge sending the RB15 into the tyre barrier, triggering an immediate safety car.

Raikkonen was straight into the pits for a new front wing, and he was joined by Daniel Ricciardo who had himself suffered an impact at the first corner with Racing Point's Lance Stroll. Also in was birthday boy Carlos Sainz who had initially stalled on the grid before finally getting underway. However the issue subsequently proved to be a chronic one, which forced Sainz to park the MCL34 for good.

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari SF90 leads behind the FIA Safety Car.

When the race resumed on lap 5, Leclerc managed the restart to perfection while a brief lock-up left Vettel battling to fend off Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. Lando Norris was in fifth ahead of Haas pair Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, followed by Racing Point's Sergio Perez and the two Toro Rossos of Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat sandwiching Perez' team mate Stroll.

Leclerc was pushing hard to open up a gap at the front, but a lock-up on lap 9 saw him overshoot Les Combes which reigned him back in again. Hamilton was just within DRS range of Vettel and optimistically telling the team over the radio that "Vettel's struggling" only to then lose ground again down the Kemmel Straight. Further back, Perez was more successful in forcing his way past Magnussen, with Gasly following suit a lap later. It was only a matter of time before Stroll and Kvyat did likewise as the Haas rapidly waned with escalating tyre issues.

The first driver to make a scheduled pit stop for medium tyres was Nico Hulkenberg on lap 12, surrendering 13th place to Red Bull's latest recruit Alexander Albon who was diligently working his way from his starting position at the back as a result of engine penalties. The Thai driver was working hard to stay ahead of the recovering Ricciardo and Raikkonen, while the two Williams of George Russell and Robert Kubica found themselves in 16th and 17th as Hulkenberg fell back following his pit stop.

Gasly and Stroll were next to pit on laps 14 and 15 respectively, heralding the arrival of Vettel on pit lane next time around which briefly dropped him to fifth behind Norris. Hamilton floored it in an attempt to overcut the Ferrari, but Vettel's fresh tyres quickly closed the door. Instead, it was Ferrari's decision to keep Leclerc out on track and defer his stop that appeared the sketchier call and threatened the youngster's lead. Sure enough, when Leclerc finally pitted on lap 22 he came out behind Vettel on track.

Sebastian Vettel (GER) Ferrari SF90.

Meanwhile there had been some intense competition in the mid-field, including Raikkonen, Perez and Gasly going three-wide down the Kemmel Straight. The Finn ended up losing out in a virtual replay of the Schumacher/Hakkinen/Zonta classic move in the same spot in 2000. Gasly subsequently went wheel-to-wheel with Magnussen, nerfing the Haas wide at Les Combes to gain 12th place.

Once the two Silver Arrows pitted. Vettel was promoted to the lead of the race by almost three seconds over Leclerc, with Hamilton and Bottas some four seconds further back. Norris was running a lonely but safe fifth ahead of a yet-to-stop Antonio Giovinazzi followed by a duelling Perez and Ricciardo.

Vettel's older tyres meant he was quickly caught again by Leclerc, and on lap 27 the team directed a change of positions to put the younger man back in front. After that, Vettel grew increasingly concerned that tyre wear meant that he would need a second pit stop before the finish of the race, which would inevitably drop him behind Hamilton and Bottas. In the meantime Vettel found himself relegated to the role of rear gunner, protecting his team mate's back and holding back the competition for as long as possible.

Vettel did a fine job of holding up under extreme pressure, but on lap 32 he could take no more and Hamilton sailed past him into Les Combes to take second place. Now it was Bottas' turn to turn the screws on Vettel, but Ferrari decided enough was enough and summoned their man in for new tyres on lap 34. Such as the gap back to Norris, there was no danger of Vettel dropping further then fourth in the process.

With the end of the race fast approaching, Leclerc was just able to hold on to a sufficient gap at the front over a hard-charging Hamilton to secure a safe victory. Bottas and Vettel were next across the line, but there was no sign of Norris after the McLaren suffered a technical failure at the start of the final lap. It handed fifth place to Albon on his strong debut for Red Bull, followed by Perez, Kvyat

Race winner Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari SF90 celebrates in parc ferme.

Norris was eventually classified in 11th place ahead of the two Haas drivers Magnussen and Grosjean, who both suffered miserably with tyre degradation in the closing laps. Ricciardo declined to 14th place just ahead of Russell.

Raikkonen crossing the line in 16th after his Alfa clearly sustained damage from its lap 1 clash leaving him struggling to finish ahead of last-place man Kubica. Antonio Giovinazzi had been on course to pick up points before the Alfa Romeo went off into the barrier on the penultimate lap.

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