Charles Leclerc believes Ferrari is not “too far off” Red Bull in Suzuka despite Max Verstappen topping both Friday practice sessions.
Red Bull’s record-breaking winning run came to an abrupt end in Singapore as both Verstappen and team-mate Sergio Perez were eliminated in Q2 in qualifying.
However, the speed of the RB19 appeared ominous on Friday at the high-speed Suzuka circuit, with Verstappen immediately taking to the top of the timesheets and remaining there throughout the entire day’s running.
Ferrari, meanwhile, is aiming to continue its strong recent form that culminated in Carlos Sainz securing victory in Singapore.
The Italian marque has introduced a new floor this weekend – but while Leclerc asserts the performance improvement is marginal, he is optimistic Ferrari has a good baseline heading into the weekend.
Asked about the impact of the floor upgrade, Leclerc – who wound up second in FP2, 0.3s behind Verstappen – said: “It did what we expected it to do, which is gave us a little bit of consistency, which was good to see. I don’t think there was a lot of performance into it but let’s wait and see.
“Obviously, we keep learning about this car. The last two and three races we learned a lot, and now it’s about putting all of it together, which we did in Singapore, so we need to do that here too.
“Red Bull seem to be extremely quick this weekend, but I don’t think we are too far off.”
Since struggling extensively at Zandvoort, Ferrari have rebounded to score successive pole positions and seized the opportunity to score an unlikely win last weekend.
Leclerc asserts that Ferrari has begun to understand its troublesome SF-23 car more, enabling the team to put its car more consistently in the right operating window.
“We are understanding our car much better than we did before Zandvoort and that helps us to be on the good side of things because everything is so close with McLaren and Mercedes that whenever we put our car in the right window we can be in front,” he explained.
“That’s what we’ve done in the last few races, that’s what the target is for tomorrow but again even if we do everything perfect this weekend, I expect Red Bull to be stronger unfortunately.”
Leclerc conceded ahead of the weekend that recent set-up changes to dial more understeer into Ferrari’s 2023 car to make it more predictable has tailored it increasingly towards Sainz’s preferred driving style.
But having overturned his team-mate’s advantage on Friday at Suzuka, Leclerc says a slight alteration to his driving style enabled him to be more on top of the car.
“Today was a little bit better,” he assessed. “The last two or three races I struggled a little bit with the balance of the car.
“Today I changed a little bit my driving style, went with the car a bit in my direction too and it feels like the feeling is better. Obviously its only one day, so we need to keep pushing, and hopefully do another step forward tomorrow.”