Ferrari driver Leclerc wins Belgian GP in solemn atmosphere

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (AP) — Charles Leclerc just held off Lewis Hamilton to win the Belgian Grand Prix from pole position on Sunday, securing the first victory of his Formula One career and ending Ferrari’s long wait for a win.

Hamilton was within one second of Leclerc on the final lap, but the 21-year-old from Monaco held his nerve.

“He was catching very quickly so I had quite a bit of pressure,” Leclerc said after his win.

He dedicated it to French driver Anthoine Hubert, who died Saturday following a heavy crash during an F2 race held on the same track. Drivers paid their respects on Sunday.

Moments after winning, Leclerc pointed to the sky and then to Hubert’s name written on the side of his car.

Hamilton extended his championship lead because his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas was third, finishing ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

Ferrari had not won since former driver Kimi Raikkonen’s victory at the United States GP last October.

Vettel is 21 races without a win since last season’s Belgian GP as his miserable form continued.

Leclerc got away cleanly but Vettel was overtaken by Hamilton at the first turn before getting past Hamilton again.

Max Verstappen, winner of two of the past four races and a narrow second behind Hamilton at the Hungarian GP, went out on Lap 1.

Tens of thousands of orange-clad Dutch fans watched in disappointment as Verstappen slid into the barriers, climbed out of his car and walked back to the garage.

The front left wheel of his Red Bull was damaged after contact with Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo, who started one place behind him on the grid in sixth. Verstappen finished in the top five of every other race this season and it was his first retirement since the Hungarian GP in July last year.

Raikkonen was fortunate to continue, seeing as the left side of his car lifted clean off the ground. But Renault driver Carlos Sainz Jr. had to abandon following an early collision.

The incidents caused the safety car to come out for four laps, and when the race re-started Vettel maintained his lead but with Hamilton starting to close on Vettel’s Ferrari.

“Vettel is struggling,” Hamilton said on team radio on Lap 10.

Six laps later, Ferrari brought Vettel in for a tire change, pushing Hamilton up to second place.

Leclerc came in for his tire change exactly midway through the 44-lap race, putting Hamilton in front. But Mercedes called Hamilton in on the very next lap and made a slow stop of 3.6 seconds — which may ultimately have cost him the win.

Bottas came in one lap later as Ferrari regained the race lead with Vettel ahead of Leclerc.

Vettel obeyed team orders to let Leclerc go past him on Lap 27, and then twice held off Hamilton before Hamilton passed him on Lap 32 to take second place.

Hamilton was still seven seconds behind Leclerc, but ate into that lead so much that Leclerc had only a 2-second lead with two laps remaining and back markers ahead of him.

“I gave it absolutely everything,” Hamilton said. “It was a difficult race. I got as close as I could but maybe I needed another couple of laps.”

On the last lap, Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi crashed out but Leclerc kept his focus.

“He had that win coming,” Hamilton said of Leclerc, who had taken his third pole position of the season, with his teammate Vettel starting from second on the grid ahead of Hamilton and Bottas.

Ferrari topped all three practice sessions and all three sections of qualifying, with Leclerc beating Vettel in five of them in sunny and warm conditions.

But as is the often the case in Spa, which is located in the Ardennes forest, the weather can change quickly and temperatures cooled significantly, grey clouds rolled overhead, and drops of rain fell before the race.

Two hours later, the sun was out and the 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) track — the longest in F1 — was dry again.

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