Leclerc's Spa victory epitomised his racer's spirit

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium -- Just 18 hours after racing stopped under the most tragic of circumstances at Spa-Francorchamps, it resumed on Sunday morning with Formula 3's sprint race.

Thirty cars -- driven by men with an average age of just over 19-years-old -- hurtled downhill from the La Source corner towards the scene of Anthoine Hubert's fatal accident the day before. As they shot up the 18 percent incline of Raidillon at over 100mph, not one of them backed off and, thankfully, all 30 emerged on the other side fighting for position on the long run up to Les Combes.

No more than 20 minutes earlier, the same collection of teenagers had huddled on the grid for a minute's silence to remember Hubert. Emotions were hard to contain and comprehend as they stood behind Hubert's mother, who clutched at the helmet of her lost son alongside Hubert's brother.

After paying their respects to the Frenchman, the F3 drivers were strapped into their cars, pulled their visors down and waited for the lights to go out.

It was difficult to watch, but it must have been immensely difficult to do.

Three laps into the race and Finnish driver Simo Laaksonen was buried deep in the tyre barriers on the exit of Blanchimont. Much like Raidillon, Blanchimont is among Spa's fastest corners and an area of the track where the barriers stand ominously close to the circuit. Laaksonen had taken a nudge from rival Alexander Peroni, received a puncture and become a passenger as his F3 car submarined under the tyre barrier.

A nerve-wracking wait followed as marshals and medical staff responded to the accident. Much as they had on Saturday, the TV cameras panned away. Once again, the paddock held its collective breath.

However, on this occasion -- as is so often the case in modern motorsport -- there was a positive outcome. Laaksonen was extricated from the wreckage, visited the medical centre for precautionary checks and was given the OK. The rest of the race played out without major incident.

How do they do it?

Charles Leclerc was among the members of the F1 paddock who joined Formula 3's minute's silence on Sunday morning. Along with teammate Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto, he stood to the side of the F3 and F2 drivers as they paid their respects to their colleague and friend. And when the minute was up, he approached Hubert's mother and embraced her.

Leclerc grew up on the same go-kart tracks as Hubert and was close to the Frenchman throughout his racing career. He explained after Sunday's race that he, Hubert, Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon had all raced together in go-karts in 2005 and set out on their careers as "four kids dreaming of Formula One". Their paths split in the junior categories as Hubert struggled for budget and took longer to move through the ranks, but Leclerc remained close to the Frenchman.

As he walked back to the paddock from the F3 grid, Leclerc looked utterly devastated.

"For me it was definitely the first situation like that where we lost someone on track -- a track that you need to race on the day after," Leclerc said a few hours later after taking the first F1 win of his career. "So it's obviously quite challenging to then close the visor and go through this exact same corner at the exact same speed you do the day before -- but that's what you need to do at the end. So yeah, that's what I tried to do at best today."

Other drivers struggled with the same conflict. How do you race wheel-to-wheel at speeds of over 200mph after a tragedy like that?

All the drivers had their own ways of dealing with the situation and for Daniel Ricciardo there was some consideration for not racing at all.

"Last night absolutely," he said. "You question is it really worth it? At the end of the day it is a simple question but a pretty honest one as well. It is our job and profession and our life, but also it is still just racing cars around in circles. So it gets to a point where you actually question it when you are reminded of these things -- is it worth it?

"I certainly questioned it last night but had a sleep and then seeing some of his family here today, that is what gave me more strength than anything else. How they could be here after ... taking my hat off to them doesn't do it justice. I could not imagine being in their position, and I felt that they were a lot stronger than any of us today."

As Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, a former racing driver himself, said on Sunday evening, "it's beyond understanding that these guys do what they do".

Going racing on Sunday was almost cathartic for F1 after the horror of Saturday evening. It would have been understandable if any member of the paddock had called it quits and left for home early, but in racing respectfully, the sport collectively paid its own special tribute to Hubert.

"Weirdly enough, racing today felt like the best thing we could all do," Ricciardo later posted on Instagram. "Released a lot. In saying that, I think we're all happy to move on from here."

Leclerc shows mental strength

Leclerc's pre-race routine remained unchanged as he returned to the grid for his own race on Sunday afternoon. He parked up on pole position, talked to his engineer and then sat by the pit wall under an umbrella -- his gaze fixed on the middle distance amid the camera lenses pointing back at him.

Sadly, Leclerc is no stranger to tragedy. In 2015 he had to deal with the loss of his godfather and mentor Jules Bianchi -- the last driver to suffer fatal injuries at a grand prix weekend before Hubert -- who passed away as a result of an accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. Two years later, his father died at the age of 54 the day before Leclerc was due to travel to Azerbaijan for the next round of his Formula 2 campaign. Although just 19 years old at the time, he was able to take a degree of strength from the emotions of his father's death and went on to win the race.

That same strength was clear to see on Sunday as he outperformed teammate Vettel and kept Lewis Hamilton, who arguably had the faster race car at Spa, at bay. After missing out on opportunities to take his first F1 win in Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Austria earlier this year, the pressure was huge, but Leclerc was more than equal to challenge.

"I wasn't nervous," he said of the final laps as Hamilton took chunks out of his lead on each lap. "I've started to get used to being in that situation where I'm first and I'm being chased by someone that is quicker.

"Obviously I knew it was Lewis and I knew I could not afford to do any mistakes because he will take the opportunity. But yeah, apart from the last lap, he was never really close enough to try something. As I said, I was just trying to focus on my own job and finish the race."

How Ferrari finally beat Mercedes

Ferrari's strategy for Sunday's race was fairly simple: use the car's biggest strength -- its straight-line speed advantage -- to keep Mercedes at bay in the overtaking zones and maximise strategy opportunities to cover the car's weaknesses in tyre management. The second part of the plan explains why Vettel pitted so early -- a decision that backfired and forced him onto a two-stop strategy, but one that ultimately helped ease Leclerc's run to victory.

On lap 14, the lap before Vettel pitted, Mercedes had been ready in the pits but opted not to bring a driver in. Had they done so, most likely with Valtteri Bottas, he would have been released back on track with a fresh tyres with the potential to use his pace advantage to undercut the lead held by Leclerc. Ferrari couldn't risk that, and so Vettel was called in on lap 15 to ensure the Italian countered any move by Mercedes.

"I think simply we had to react to what Mercedes was doing at that time," Ferrari team boss Binotto said. "If we could have gone longer with Seb, we would have done it -- we were prepared to go as long as possible -- but as soon as we saw Mercedes ready for the pit we had to react.

"And Charles got some advantage, some gap, so he could have stayed out without putting at risk his track position on Hamilton and again when it was the right time to stop, we simply stopped. But it was not an intended two-stop strategy [for Vettel]."

The power of the undercut was clear as Leclerc emerged from his own pit stop six laps later, five seconds behind his teammate. But with Vettel's tyres already starting to go off, he soon caught the the No.5 Ferrari and Vettel moved aside to let Leclerc through. Naturally, Vettel put up a fight when Hamilton, who pitted a lap later than Leclerc, filled his mirrors on lap 32 and, in a race decided by as little as 0.9s, the Mercedes driver lost crucial time getting past.

Arguably, Mercedes could have pitted Hamilton earlier than Leclerc to try and force the issue, but at that stage of the race the main concern was having the freshest tyres possible to attack at the end. A slow change on the left rear lost Hamilton another second, which again proved to be a critical amount of time as he closed on Leclerc in the final two laps.

"I executed it as best I could," Hamilton said. "Strategy I think maybe could have been slightly better. I was obviously trying to keep up with him but he was very strong on the soft tyres and we just stayed out too long, I think, because by the time I came out the next lap the gap was twice as big [as it was before the pit stops].

"So I was chasing that up and also I got stuck behind Seb. But ultimately he did a superb job, so even if we had different strategies it would have been hard to beat him today I think. Ultimately he deserved the win and did the job."

Wolff added: "If you would have given me a second and third in Spa, I would have taken it before the race, because we know that our package compared to the Ferraris with the straight-line speed is inferior.

"Having said that, if we would have really optimised our race, which you can only do post-race by being super intelligent and saying what could have been, then maybe we could have pitted one or two laps earlier. Maybe the pit stop could have been a little bit quicker and we would have been in his gearbox for the last two laps.

"But there are so many ifs that I must say I am overall satisfied for us with the second and third place. We take that."

On to Monza

The battle between Ferrari and Mercedes has the potential to be as intense this coming weekend at Monza, although there is little doubt Ferrari remains the favourite. For the first time since pre-season testing, Binotto sounded confident about his team's chances at the next race and the car's supreme straight-line speed should be enough to secure another front-row lock-out in qualifying and the team's first win on home turf since Fernando Alonso's victory in 2010.

"Certainly Spa and Monza are the most power sensitive circuits, and we proved that our package is competitive here at Spa, and we maybe expect to be competitive in Monza as well, no doubt," he said. "We've developed some low downforce packages -- some of it has been used here in Spa. I don't know what the others have prepared for Monza, so that's really a question mark.

"But true as well that we know our car is competitive on the straights for the speed we've got, and after Spa, I may say that we will be competitive in Monza as well.

"We've seen today to win, you need to do everything perfect from the qualy to the start to the team management, to the drivers themselves, their driving. Nothing can be left and I'm expecting as well that it will be very difficult at Monza. We will need to perfect there, knowing that certainly we may be competitive as well."

Wolff believes Mercedes will not have an answer for Ferrari's raw speed, but could still be a factor on race day.

"I don't think we can find the 15km/h [we are losing to Ferrari on the straights] in the next five days. But it is what it is, no complaining. We have just got to prepare for Monza the best we can, knowing that it is not a track that will suit us.

"It will favour Ferrari but we have got to do the best possible job. On the Sunday we are looking much closer, even on the high power circuits, so I still think that we have got to give it all we have to hopefully win the race in Monza."

For Leclerc, one year on from the announcement he would join Ferrari, it is likely to be another emotional weekend, but hopefully for all the right reasons.

"For me, last year, coming to Monza was probably one of the best experiences in my life," Leclerc said. "The support I had, even though I was not a Ferrari driver at that time, was unbelievable, so I can't imagine what it will be like now after I just won my first race in Formula One.

"So I imagine the welcome will be great, as it was last year but probably even more now, firstly driving for Ferrari and secondly because I just had my first win in Formula One. I'm really looking forward to arriving in Italy."