Less than 24 hours after Leclerc’s French motor racing contemporary, Anthoine Hubert, was killed at the Spa-Francorchamps venue, the young Monegasque driver delivered a dominant display to take the chequered flag in his friend’s honour.
Lewis Hamilton finished second after fighting his way past Sebastian Vettel with 12 laps remaining. Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas also managed to see off Vettel after the Ferrari driver was forced to make an additional stop for tyres.
Hamilton extended his lead over Bottas in the championship to 65 points.
“This one is for Anthoine,” said an emotional Leclerc on the radio.
“It feels good but it is difficult to enjoy a weekend like this.”
He added: “On one hand I have realised a dream, but on the other hand it has been a difficult weekend.
“I have lost a friend, so I would like to dedicate my win to him.
“We have grown up together. It is a shame what happened yesterday, so I cannot enjoy my first victory.”
Leclerc posted a childhood picture with his arm around Hubert upon news of his death following a horrifying 160mph crash in Saturday’s Formula Two race. He accompanied the picture with the words: “I can’t believe it.”
Leclerc, who is 22 next month, the same age as Hubert, was visibly moved by the tragedy. Prior to the race, he hugged Hubert’s mother, Nathalie.
A moment of silence was observed before the race in the French driver’s memory. Nathalie held her son’s pink and white crash helmet. Hubert’s brother, Victhor, stood alongside her as the Formula One and grieving Formula Two drivers formed an arc, bowing their heads in honour of their fallen colleague.
Daniel Ricciardo, the usually jovial Australian, kept his eyes closed throughout the silence and ensuing national anthem. He then appeared to wipe away tears, summing up the sombre mood before the start of Sunday’s race. All 20 of the drivers’ cars were adorned with “Racing for Anthoine” stickers.
Leclerc made the perfect start, racing away to the slow, right-handed La Source turn, to retain the lead. Hamilton, starting from third, got the jump on Vettel before Max Verstappen bumped wheels with Kimi Raikkonen.
The force of the impact sent Raikkonen temporarily on to two wheels. Verstappen sustained damage to his car and slammed into the barriers at the top of Eau Rouge, the corner which claimed Hubert’s life.
Verstappen walked away unscathed from the high-speed shunt, but the safety car was quickly deployed. Vettel had managed to re-pass Hamilton for second on the Kemmel Straight, while British teenager Lando Norris took advantage of the chaotic opening exchanges to move up six spots to fifth.
Following the safety car period, Leclerc retained his lead, with Hamilton hot on Vettel’s heels. The German stopped on lap 16, but it was not until lap 21 that Leclerc dived in for a change of rubber. Hamilton pitted on the next lap.
The early stop had helped Vettel take the lead, but his tyres would not last the course. On lap 27, he was told by Ferrari to move out of Leclerc’s way, which he duly did. Then, on lap 32, Hamilton fought his way past with Vettel struggling on ageing rubber.
Leclerc was six seconds up the road on Hamilton, and the world champion kept Leclerc honest to the flag, crossing the line just one second behind the Ferrari driver.
But Leclerc would hold on to take an emotional victory ahead of Hamilton, Bottas and Vettel.
Norris looked set to claim a career-best fifth in his McLaren, but stopped with an apparent mechanical failure as he began his final lap.
The London-born Alex Albon took the flag in fifth after starting 18th in an impressive start to his Red Bull career.