While the debate rages on surrounding the outcome of the 2021 Formula One world championship, won by Max Verstappen over Lewis Hamilton amid a controversial conclusion to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it is easy to forget the rest of drivers and teams.
As Charles Leclerc charged up Eau Rouge on lap 19 in the lead of the Belgian Grand Prix the 109,000-strong crowd rose to its feet and broke into applause.
But the ovation wasn’t for him; it was for Anthoine Hubert, who less than 24 hours earlier had lost his life tackling that same turn.
It was an emotional fan-led tribute to the Frenchman, who had borne the number 19 on his pink Arden Formula Two car, and a poignant reminder of the ever-present dangers of motor racing that now faced Leclerc and his Formula One rivals as they rocketed down the Kemmel Straight at in excess of 300 kilometres per hour.
The Formula One race was thankfully won and run without major incident, but the Formula Two feature race on Saturday evening hadn’t got away so luckily when 22-year-old Hubert, a Renault Sport Academy junior driver, became caught up in a catastrophic series of events on the second lap.
Cars were scrambling to avoid Giuliano Alesi’s stricken Trident at the crest of Raidillon, and in the chaos Hubert lost control and smacked heavily into the outside barriers.
Juan Manuel Correa was the next driver to take to the run-off area in avoidance of the melee, but as he did so Hubert’s car spun back towards the track. The two made contact at 270 kilometres per hour and slammed back into the barriers.
An emotional Charles Leclerc on the podium after his first career F1 win
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 1, 2019
The race was called off and the medical team was quickly in attendance, but while Correa could be treated for leg fractures and a spinal injury, Hubert paid for the crash with his life.
The paddock was plunged into grief.
Such a loss affects everyone differently, but for drivers it can be visceral. Performance is in part be built on psychologically suppressing the urge to slow down in the interests of self-preservation; a racing fatality forces those emotions straight back to the surface.
“I don’t think any of us actually wanted to be here or wanted to race,” Daniel Ricciardo said on Sunday night. “Once you get that adrenaline of the competition then you kind of put it towards the back, but to completely remove it today was impossible. It was still there.
“It was certainly tough to be here and try to put on a brave face for everyone.”
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The last few hours have been incredibly tough for our community. We lost Anthoine today. So sad to see our sport take another so young. May his spirit shine on. Deepest thoughts are with his family & friends, sending all the love and warmth. That extends to Juan Manuel also who was involved in the accident ❤️
But the fact that drivers continue to race only hours after losing one of their own is tacit acknowledgement of the bargain they strike with themselves to race at the highest level of the sport — that danger is an inalienable part of motor racing.
Decades of diligence by the FIA means upper-echelon motorsport today rarely encounters such serious crashes, but while racing can always be made safer, it can never really be made safe.
For all the advancements in driver protection over the history of racing, the act of propelling yourself at extreme speed around a ribbon of tarmac can never be completely riskless. That flirtation with danger is part of the thrill, and though no driver is excited by the prospect of losing their life on the race track, the line between danger and death is fine.
“If a single one of you watching and enjoying this sport think for a second what we do is safe, you’re hugely mistaken,” Hamilton said via Instagram. “All these drivers put their life on the line when they hit the track and people need to appreciate that in a serious way because it is not appreciated enough. Not from the fans nor some of the people actually working in the sport.
“Anthoine is a hero as far as I’m concerned for taking the risk he did to chase his dreams. I’m so sad that this has happened.
“Let’s left him up and remember him. Rest in peace, brother.”
Formula One forged on in Hubert’s memory. People wore black armbands, cars were liveried with memorial stickers and a moving minute’s silence was observed before the race in the presence of Anthoine’s brother and mother and one of his helmets.
But then the drivers got on with it as they always do. They diced at high speed, dancing on the edge of physics at extreme speed in pursuit of the ultimate rush of victory at the risk of the gut-wrenching loss of the previous 24 hours, the contradiction eternally at the heart of motorsport.
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) August 31, 2019
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) August 31, 2019
Devastating news. God bless your soul Anthoine. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family today ????????????
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) August 31, 2019
There could be only one acceptable result on such a day, and Leclerc fulfilled the prophecy and emerged victorious. It was his maiden Formula One win, a destiny first written when he started racing as a boy with Hubert and Formula One contemporaries Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon, but the joy clashed darkly with the sadness of losing a long-time friend.
“There was quite a bit of emotion before the race, then once I got in the car, as I did for my father two years ago, you needed to put all the emotions apart and focus on the job, which is exactly what I did,” Leclerc said.
“Then you realise at the end of the race, and all the emotions come back once you cross the finish line.”
It’s the same mental deal every driver makes as they climb into the cockpit. On this sad weekend the sport called the deal in.
Repose en paix, Anthoine.