SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (Reuters) - Charles Leclerc took little joy from claiming his first Formula One win despite fulfilling a childhood dream, but his victory was what the sport needed on a weekend overshadowed by the death of French racer Anthoine Hubert.
Motor racing was in mourning on Sunday after Hubert, 22, succumbed to injuries sustained in a high speed crash during a Formula Two race the previous day.
Monegasque Leclerc, who grew close to the Frenchman when they were youngsters in karting and competed against him in his very first race, was among those most affected.
“It’s a good day but on the other hand losing Anthoine yesterday brings me back to 2005, my first ever French championship,” said the Ferrari driver.
“There was him, Esteban (Ocon), Pierre (Gasly), myself and we were four kids that were dreaming of Formula One.”
Leclerc’s victory on Sunday from pole position, ahead of championship leader Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas, came after the 21-year-old was denied by engine problems in the second race of the season in Bahrain in March.
In his first year at Ferrari and only his second in Formula One, he was also on course to win in Austria in July until Red Bull’s Max Verstappen snatched the lead off him two laps from the end.
Before Sunday’s race, Gasly, who drives for Toro Rosso and was classmates with Hubert, had gone up to Leclerc and told him to win the race for the Frenchman.
“There were quite a bit of emotions before the race,” said Leclerc, who lost his father in 2017 on the eve of an F2 race in Baku that he nonetheless went on to win from pole position.
“Then once I got in the car, as I did for my father two years ago, you need to put all the emotions to one side and focus on the job.
“I was very happy to win and remember him the way he deserved to be and, yeah, happy to do it on this day.”
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said Leclerc, godson of late Ferrari protege Jules Bianchi, the last driver to be die from injuries sustained on an F1 race weekend, was the fitting winner.
“I feel for his (Hubert’s) family,” said the Austrian. “And for his friends in the cars... among those Charles.
“So he deserves to win. That was due and maybe the right man won at the right time.”
Reporting by Abhishek Takle; Editing by Ken Ferris