It turns out that you can stare at a blank page for far longer than you thought. Because the alternative is writing this, and if you write it then it must be true. If you don’t write it, does that mean it didn’t happen? Have a drink and start. You know that’s it’s true, as much as you want to believe that it’s not.
Anthoine Hubert died today, in Race One at Spa-Francorchamps.
Sometimes life just seems so unfair. Today is one of those times. Anthoine, that funny, smart, engaging, incredibly shy, resolute, slyly sarcastic, seriously quick, faultlessly polite, kind, determined, beautiful little French maestro is gone at the age of just 22, and like everyone who knew him I’m just head-foggily numb at the prospect of trying to understand that fact, and that I won’t get to see his smiling face again.
I missed the start, it doesn’t matter why, and then I saw a message saying there’d be a crash, a bad one, and I checked to see what had happened. These are still my guys despite being out for a while, and I had to make sure they were okay.
They were not okay.
The last, best, memory I have of Anthoine is in the green room behind the podium in Abu Dhabi after Race One of last year’s GP3 Series, just after he’d won the championship at the end of a long, fractious seasonat ART, the win silencing all the noise and leaving him aloft in radiant peace.
The (fake) champagne had been sprayed, the public display of emotion was done, the other drivers had headed back to the paddock and Anthoine sat there, alone, trying to absorb the enormity of what he’d done. Alexa and I stood just inside the doorway, not wanting to intrude, but how do you not ask how it feels to have achieved such a monumental life goal?
“I don’t know,” he replied, candidly, “it’s … too much, you know? Amazing, but … it’s a huge emotion. Probably I will take it all in, but…” Alexa came over to break the ice, asking “so, can we get a photo with the last ever GP3 champ?” and he beamed, his face radiant as he pulled us in, and a little piece of what it meant seemed to fall into place.
I first met Anthoine the year before, when he formed a corner of that famous ART quartet in 2017. George Russell, Jack Aitken, Nirei Fukuzumi and Anthoine Hubert. It’s easy to see now, and probably even then, that it was going to be a tough year for the Frenchman: he’d managed to land a seat in the best GP3 team, and yet it was hard to see how he would even make the podium at the end of the season.
And so it proved, but in a year that would be difficult for any driver with teammates of that calibre Anthoine still held his head high: the lack of a win rankled, and those of us who saw him behind the scenes could see how much it hurt, particularly with the bad luck that befell him over the season, but the talent that saw him claim the F4 title was still clear to see.
2018 had to be his year, and despite new teammate Nikita Mazepin claiming that he was gunning for the title in his rookie year the smart money was on the Frenchman. He got the monkey off his back with a fine win at home in Paul Ricard, got another one in Silverstone, but it was 11 podiums that formed the spine of his title winning year.
I saw him again, on the grid of the last race and at the party afterwards, but it’s that time sitting alone with his thoughts that will stay with me: so quiet, contemplative, and then that smile, so pure, so true.
Most people thought he’d stay with ART for the step up to F2, but the racing world doesn’t work like that. I admit I hoped he’d do better than where he ended up, at an Arden team that was on a low ebb from a brighter past, but he got his head down and went to work, pulling every splinter of information he could from testing before the start of the season.
And, frankly, 2 wins (in Monaco and again at home in Ricard) in that car is an astonishingly good return, and it shows again how clever Anthoine could be: if he can’t get the best seat in the championship then why not go further back, where expectations are smaller and the spotlight of publicity that bit dimmer? If he does well in such circumstances it can only show all the brighter the talent he had in spades.
But motorsport can be so heartbreakingly cruel, and now we’ll never know how far he could have gone.
In my old job it was hard not to like most of the drivers: it was my job to make them look good after all, and the ones who didn’t need much help in that regard made my life that little bit easier. And every year we had drivers with who it was just easy to get along, who were fun to work with, who just made our lives a bit more interesting.
Anthoine was one of those drivers, the rarer ones, who had everything you need to push for the heights of the motorsport world: he was fast, he was clever, he learnt from everything he did, and he had an easy manner and effortless charm that brought everyone in his circle a little bit closer.
I saw the crash, and I tried not to think the worst: over 15 years in the paddock I’ve seen crashes, bad ones involving drivers I liked, and the fates have somehow prevailed to keep them safe. I saw the news on Twitter, an F1 journalist wanting to beat his rivals to a scoop, and I tried to believe that it wasn’t true. And then I saw the FIA confirmation, and I just wept.
I’ve thought of Anthoine all night, his face and his beaming smile circling around my head the whole time. I thought of that photo, and then when I saw it I cried again. I didn’t get to see him in Silverstone: I walked down to Arden and thought I saw him sitting out the back, and I smiled and waved until I got a bit closer and realised it wasn’t him.
“Anthoine’s brother? Yes, I guess I look like him…” Victhor beamed at the fact that someone had confused him for his big brother.
His poor family. The thought of their pain is simply pulverising.
I’ll catch up with him later, I thought, either here or at another track. And right now, I can’t imagine how I won’t. But Anthoine, that shy French lad with a winning smile and a talent bigger than we’ll ever know, has been taken from us far, far before his time. And writing those words the tears in my eyes, and the pain in my heart, tell me that I’m starting to believe that it’s true.
I miss you already Anthoine. Rest well, my friend.