Anthoine Hubert Tribute: The day from a spectator’s perspective

The yearly anniversary of the tragic events of last year’s Belgian Grand Prix weekend was always going to be tough for everyone connected to Anthoine. A lot has happened since that terrible day. But even despite all we have had to put up with over the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic changing our lives in ways we couldn’t imagine, no one has forgotten about how much of a great talent and a great guy he was, the moments where he just beat Louis Deletraz to the line in a thrilling finish in Monaco, the moment where he crossed the line to win his home race in Paul Ricard to raptures of applause from his home crowd. But we also haven’t forgotten every detail of that tragic Saturday at Spa.

For many involved in motorsport, whether it is those that work in the sport or fans that are closely invested in it, they remember every detail of a tragic event like this in every single detail, they remember where they were, what they were doing and their surroundings at that moment clear as day for the rest of their lives. That’s what people who were watching F1 in 1994 say about when we lost Ayrton Senna. This wasn’t always the case back in the day when we regularly saw a death every year, but the fact that even an injury, let alone a fatality, is such a rarity in motorsport these days means that when something like this does happen, it shocks us in ways we can’t even imagine, and they become huge moments in our time watching the sport that we all remember. I still remember every detail of that day, as well as what proceeded and what followed. Especially as I was at the event myself as a spectator.

For those that read my tribute post at the time of when it happened, after the 2017 GP3 season, I was doubtful about whether he was on track to make F1. And even after he won the GP3 title in 2018 and took those two wins in Monaco and France in the second tier, I really did underestimate him as a future prospect, but was starting to pay attention to how he was a Sunday sprint race master. And I always predicted him to win the Sunday sprint races. But then around a week before Spa, I read an article talking about how Hubert was in high demand for 2020. Reading the article changed my perceptions of his future prospects and put into perspective how much of a great job he had done. And in my opinion, this is why. Yes Formula 2 is a spec series but the team does still make the difference and its usually the teams with better resources, such as ART, UNI-Virtuosi, DAMS, Prema and Carlin, that succeed, and its hard to be successful in teams that have less resources.

Hubert had been unable to secure a drive with one of the top teams and had to make the best of what he had, which was Arden. A smaller team that had been in the second tier since the F3000 days, that had the skillset to be title contenders, but did not have the resources to do so. His car was not good enough to win races, yet he managed to do so on two occasions. And he wasn’t just a driver, he was a team player as well. As his team members said in F2’s ‘Chasing The Dream’ documentary, he meshed with the team so well, and after a difficult preseason he worked with the team to analyse their weaknesses and how to counteract them, to great rewards in both Monaco and France. This is a skill set that can take a driver a long way in F1. After reading that article and subsequently realising all of this, I realised this was a driver that was well on his way to F1. The Belgian Grand Prix weekend would be my first race watching him as a future F1 prospect.

On the Friday I had planned to sit on the grass bank on the inside of Rivage corner for the F2 qualifying session. But on a hot day I was so exhausted after walking much of the track during the F1 practice session that I settled at Pouhon corner. In the end I am glad I did. Whilst many drivers were overstepping the mark and losing it, Anthoine Hubert was right on the edge every time he came round on a push lap. He did not show any sign of losing it. This was a driver that had a calculated approach to his driving, he had clearly analysed where the limit was and had worked out exactly how he needed to take the corner. However that came to nothing in the end as due to someone else overstepping the mark at that same corner, the red flag came out and many drivers, including Hubert, were unable to improve on their final runs and were out of position on the grid. Anthoine would start thirteenth.

For the most part Saturday was a normal Grand Prix Saturday at the track. Arrive in time for the F3 race, and go round various vantage points throughout the day to watch the track action. It had been an exciting day, the F3 race had seen plenty of action, the practice session had seen drama with Hamilton hitting the barrier, followed by Mercedes doing a great job to repair his car so he could take part in qualifying. For qualifying I sat at Pouhon having enjoyed F2 there the previous day. Charles Leclerc took pole position, a result which a lot of the crowd was happy with. After that it was watch the F2 race then film some pieces for one of my projects recapping the events, as well as features for Absolute Motorsport.

After qualifying finished I rushed down the spectator pathway that takes you from Pouhon to the Bus Stop Chicane, where I would watch the Formula 2 race from, like the previous year. I scrambled onto the grass bank before the formation lap. With a mixed up grid and many front runners out of position, I was sure we were in for a cracker. The lights went out and there was immediate drama as title contender Nicholas Latifi picked up a rear puncture at the first corner after contact with Mick Schumacher. There was a lot of side by side action on the first lap, and as they entered my field of view and negotiated the Bus Stop for the first time, I saw Luca Ghiotto get past Nikita Mazepin after a lacklustre start. As the rest of the field exited my field of view, Nicholas Latifi came round with his puncture. I looked at his car to assess the damage his tyre had done to the floor, and then I glanced back up at the screen. That’s when it happened, as I saw a Charouz car barrel rolling to the front of the shot.

Those who were watching from other parts of the track say the seriousness was immediately clear to them and there was an instant silence, as did those watching on TV. However, where I was at the Bus Stop, I think it took a while for the reality of the situation to hit, mainly because the Bus Stop chicane area is a lot of the time a hotspot for drunk people. My instant reaction was to watch the crash again on Sky Go, which was around 30-45 seconds behind, so I could piece together what happened and see who was involved. I didn’t notice how badly destroyed the cars were and my initial thought was Correa and Hubert had made contact at the top of the hill in avoidance of the spinning Alesi and gone into the wall in synchronisation. Usually that sort of impact the drivers walk away from and at that point I didn’t think it was serious and was just disappointed that we had been robbed of a fightback through the field from Hubert.

But as time went on with no news or no replay, and especially after seeing a couple of ambulances going past things started to seem really uneasy. Yes I was at the track but I basically saw the crash on TV like everyone watching from home, and the reality was I was in the same boat as those watching on tv at home when it came to knowledge of what happened and what the situation was. Footage of the crash shared by a fan at the scene then emerged on social media. After seeing the footage which showed what happened, I realised this was no normal crash, however the fact it was shot from a far angle and as I had the volume on my phone turned down whilst sitting in a crowd of people, it did not hit me how violent the impact was. However it was concerning to see, and as time continued to go on, it became evident something was very wrong.

Then a message came up on the screen saying the race would not be restarted. And I think it was that moment where the seriousness of the situation became obvious to everyone. I tried to convince myself that it was not being restarted because of barrier damage. But deep down I knew that with it being the last track action of the day with lots of room for delays, they would only cancel the race if it was gravely serious. At this point I was convinced Correa was gonna be fine as he was moving in the car after the impact, however I was really worried about Hubert. And as more pictures and clips from the accident scene emerged on social media that showed the extent of the damage to Hubert’s car (some people really were showing absolutely no respect), I had a really bad feeling and was fearing the worst.

In the circumstances there was no way I could film my planned features I was going to do, so it was straight back to the car park. I was reserved about going back at first as I wanted to be sure the accident scene would be clear as I’d walk past Raidillon on the way back to the car park. Fortunately the scene was clear when I walked past with no obvious signs of what had just happened, however the atmosphere had changed throughout the venue. What was a vibrant atmosphere and fanfare a couple of hours earlier was now an eery silence, all I could hear was a couple of boom boxes being played in the distance. Whilst I was walking back, I was constantly checking official sources for updates. But at this point, with every team cancelling their press conference and planned main stage activities also cancelled, as well as the lack of updates, everything just screamed fatality. Deep down I knew the worst news was coming.

But even despite that the thought of that was so unimagineable that it was impossible to prepare for when the news actually came. My phone battery was dying so I stopped refreshing for updates until I got into the car. I got my phone out and refreshed and saw the phrase ‘RIP Anthoine Hubert’ for the first time. I didn’t want to believe it and was praying it was fake but sadly it was true. The emotions I felt were hard to describe, it was a feeling of shock and disbelief followed by a feeling of sadness.

At that moment I simply wanted to go straight back to the hotel room and let all my emotions out, whilst I was still at the track I felt inclined to hold back my emotions as much as I could as I didn’t want to attract attention and have a bunch of people asking if the worst had happened. But we were in a traffic jam exiting the car park and we needed to get food from a store for dinner. My phone’s battery finally died but I spent that time reflecting and writing a personal tribute. For the rest of that evening I did not care about anything else, at that moment I would not have cared had the rest of the weekend got cancelled despite the amount of effort I put in to be at Spa. But not coming back to the track on Sunday was not an option for me as I knew that coming back and enjoying the Sunday as much as I could would be the best tribute I could pay.

At the track the next day there was a really uneasy feeling. Especially after Simo Laaksonen’s crash in the F3, where seeing the medical car speed down the Kemmel Straight terrified me, but thankfully he was OK. But I had a bad feeling ahead of the F1. You don’t think of the risks till something happens but when it does the sport suddenly feels more dangerous than ever. But this tragic incident really did bring out the best in people as the tributes paid on the Sunday were incredible. His mother was so brave driving all the way from France to the circuit and the images of her on the grid with all the drivers and personnel paying their respects have become so poignant. I never expected that if something like this happened in a supporting feeder series it would get this sort of response and reaction.

In the end Charles Leclerc took his maiden win, which is a moment I always wanted to be there at the track for when it happened. But not in these circumstances, and as we drove back to the Eurotunnel on Monday, I had an extremely empty feeling, knowing that a rising star who I had literally just started to see as a future F1 prospect, was no longer with us. Of course it is a dangerous sport but because of the rarity of tragic accidents like this, we assume nothing bad is going to happen going into a race weekend, and you don’t think of the risk till something happens. When I saw Anthoine line up on the grid for the Feature Race, there was absolutely no way it could’ve crossed my mind that just two hours later he would be gone.

Last week marked exactly a year since that terrible day and even though I could not be at Spa this year due to COVID, it felt really weird. The tributes paid on the grid before the F1 and the F2 races were scenes very similar to 12 months ago, and as the F2 cars began their second lap in the Feature Race on Saturday, naturally it was playing on our minds. But F2 in particular put on a great show for Anthoine. And then of course a week later his best mate Pierre Gasly took a shock victory at Monza, and the images of him sitting on the podium reflecting on everything are incredibly poignant especially as it was obvious Anthoine was in his mind. Just a couple of weeks before the tragic accident, Anthoine had messaged Pierre to prove Red Bull wrong after he was demoted to Toro Rosso, and since he really has done that.

I have to talk about what Lewis Hamilton said after the news that Anthoine didn’t survive came out, where he mentioned the dangers are under appreciated. I completely agree with that, during my life I have come across so many people say the sport is not dangerous anymore in any way. The reason some think that is because all the safety improvements have disillusioned people. In F2’s Chasing The Dream documentary, Alex Jacques stated that ‘everyone knows the risk’ is what he heard a lot but he questioned if people really did and stated that surely they didn’t think it could ‘look like that’ in an accident that resulted in one dead and one seriously injured.

To finish this off firstly I am going to say get well soon Juan Manuel Correa, it’s good to see his recovery is going well and he hopes to be on the F2 grid in 2021, at the time I felt whilst everyone was grieving Anthoine, people forgot about Juan Manuel, who had suffered serious leg injuries. The past year must have been agonising for him not just with his physical recovery but the mental trauma of being in such a tragic accident as well.

Secondly I have to commend Alex Jacques and the way he handled this tragedy. He is still quite a young commentator, so it must have been incredibly tough to be faced with the ultimate test of a Motorsport commentator, it must have been especially tough interview Anthoine on the drivers parade and then to record his obituary just hours later. But over the past year, whether it was on the broadcast of that fateful race, or in the tributes paid at this past weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, he really could not have done any better than he did.

Finally that drivers parade interview done by Alex Jacques on that fateful day I mentioned I am going to link here. It has gotten lost amongst all the clips of the accident and that’s a shame as this video really shows the character he was and why everyone misses him, and demonstrates that even though his life was cut tragically short just hours later, he spent his final days and hours enjoying the atmosphere, interacting with fans (saw many fans posting pictures with him in the fan zone) and driving a very fast race car round one of the best race tracks in the world.

Rest in peace Anthoine, we miss you.

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