It was not a matter of if Ferrari’s driver Charles Leclerc would win a Formula One race, but when, and on Sunday at the Belgian Grand Prix, the Monegasque did what had long been anticipated in scintillating fashion.
He led from the start and was in charge of the lead for the better part of it except for a few laps in which his teammate, Sebastian Vettel, stayed in front through what was ultimately an erroneous strategy that cost him a podium position.
Whatever Leclerc took during the summer break of the season seems to have worked as his blistering pace during the weekend was unmatched even by the most established drivers. Such was his dominance that between him and the next car behind after qualifying, that of his teammate, Vettel, was a gap of more than 0.7 seconds.
In qualifying, and especially if you are the ‘junior’ partner in the team with your teammate being a four-time world champion, that kind of a gap is unheard of. Vettel, for his part, was able to ensure a Ferrari front-row lockout by beating Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton by just 0.015 of a second. If there are tracks where Ferrari were expected to take charge this season, Spa is definitely one of them.
At the start, Leclerc got off brilliantly to get into Turn One without a challenge. It’s his teammate, Vettel, who came under pressure from Hamilton. The Mercedes driver boldly went for the inside and passed Vettel who made use of the run-off area in the process. The German, however, was in no mood to give away a position that easily and at the Kemmel Straight, he overtook the five-time world champion.
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen’s slow start from fifth was made worse when he made contact with Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo in Turn One. The damage he sustained saw him crash into the barriers at Eau Rouge, ending his 21-race consecutive run of top five finishes. This brought out the Safety Car and once it went out, Vettel locked his tyres but Hamilton was unable to capitalise on this.
Instead, it was Hamilton who came under pressure from his teammate, Valtteri Bottas, on the Kemmel Straight but the Brit was able to defend.
During the summer break, Alexander Albon was promoted to a Red Bull seat, to partner Verstappen, while Pierre Gasly was demoted to Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s sister team.
It was thus ironic to have Gasly lead the Red Bull charge a few laps into the race but that was not to last.
Vettel pitted about a third into the race to prevent an undercut from Mercedes and was the first among the lead cars to do so. On the 19th lap, there was a standing ovation from the crowd at Spa in remembrance of Anthoine Hubert, the French driver (whose car was no. 19) who passed on after an accident in the Formula Two feature race on Saturday.
At the halfway mark of the race, Albon had already gone from 17th up to eighth. Vettel, meanwhile, was flying, slashing up to two seconds per lap from the lead cars. It turned out that his pace was good enough to give him the lead when Leclerc, Hamilton and Bottas pitted. The German’s race lead was, however, short-lived as Leclerc started closing the gap a few laps after his pit stop. This led to the odd outcome in which Vettel was told to let Leclerc through, while the Monegasque was told that his teammate would let him pass. Team orders came into play but this seemed more like dampening the harshness of the inevitable.
As Leclerc began to stretch the lead, Mercedes, like sharks, could ‘smell blood’ from the Ferrari and pounced. Hamilton, for instance, went three seconds faster than Vettel on the 29th lap. Three laps later, he passed the German on the Kemmel Straight. Bottas also wanted in on the action but when he got within DRS range of Vettel, the four-time world champion bailed out and dived into the pits, avoiding the ignominy of having both Mercedes pass him on the track.
Albon, who was making solid progress upwards, caught up with the Renault of Daniel Ricciardo and brilliantly passed the Australian by forcing him to defend deep and then switching to pass on the outside. Leclerc was able to withstand an onslaught from Hamilton in the final laps to take the chequered flag. He dedicated the race win to Hubert, with whom he competed with in his first ever race, aged seven.
Both SportPesa Racing Point’s cars finished within the points, with Sergio Perez, who started seventh finishing sixth and Lance Stroll who started in 16th position, finishing tenth.
As the star of Albon begins to shine brightly, perhaps another begins to dim as Vettel, the weekend revealed, had no answer to the superior race craft of his teammate.