Charles Leclerc says it was a “bit of a shame” to end fourth in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix after putting in a “really, really good lap”.
Amid excessive tyre degradation at Suzuka this weekend, Ferrari had used up more Soft tyres earlier in qualifying, leaving both Leclerc and team-mate Carlos Sainz with only a solitary run each in the final segment.
Leclerc, though, was still able to produce a fine final run to secure a place on the second row for the race, three-tenths ahead of Sainz.
But despite out-qualifying Sainz for the first time since the summer break, Leclerc admits he was moderately disappointed that such a good lap didn’t yield a better result.
Asked if he was happy with his qualifying performance, Leclerc said: “Happy’s a big word, but happy with my own performance yes, because I think it was a really, really good lap and I don’t think there was much left in that lap so that was great. I mean it’s only P4 so that’s a bit of a shame.”
Leclerc concedes that his qualifying run would have been even “more enjoyable” if Ferrari were in a position to fight for pole position like it had been this time last year.
“It feels amazing [to drive a lap of Suzuka], but it’s a bit disappointing when you finish such a great lap and then you’re P4, seven-tenths off too, so yeah it’s good but it could be more enjoyable if we were fighting for top positions,” he added.
After suffering an unexpected slump in competitiveness at Singapore to bring an end to its record-winning run, Red Bull has rebounded to be in ominous form at Suzuka.
Max Verstappen topped all three practice sessions before surging to pole position by almost six-tenths from the leading McLaren of rookie Oscar Piastri.
Leclerc believes that Ferrari lost the bulk of its time to Verstappen’s Red Bull and the McLarens through the opening sector.
“It’s crazy [the gap], they’ve [Red Bull] been really on it, straight from FP1 we understood there was quite a bit of work to do, especially in sector one for some reason, because in sector one we are basically losing most of the time we are losing around the lap.
“So this we need to look into because it might help us to understand where we need to work and where our car is weak at the moment.
“Also if you look compared to the McLaren that’s where we’ve been struggling. Just on that lap in Q3 I did a really good sector one, but we’re still far off so we need to work on that.”
Leclerc will line up on the grid behind the McLaren pair but ahead of the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez, who was over seven-tenths adrift of his team-mate at the top.
However, the Monegasque reckons Perez will be much improved tomorrow, while also predicting that Ferrari’s similar race pace to McLaren will make it tough to overhaul them.
“I think the Red Bulls will be very good, because as much as there was quite a big difference between Max and Checo in the low fuel I think in the high fuel they were much closer together, so I expect Checo to be quicker tomorrow,” he assessed.
“The McLaren we are much closer to them in terms of race pace, but they will probably have free air so it’s going to be difficult to overtake them… but maybe with strategy or at the start, so let’s see.”
The drivers have documented the severe degradation levels since hitting the track on Friday, and Leclerc anticipates tomorrow’s encounter to be one predominantly dominated by tyre management.
“Yes, especially with the very warm temperatures this year the overheating is really, really bad, so I expect it will be all about the tyre management tomorrow and the strategy”, he noted.
Although Ferrari has encountered trouble with managing the tyres throughout the season, Leclerc is convinced that the team has begun to get on top of its problems.
“It looks like we’re going in the right direction [regarding tyre wear], but let’s wait and see tomorrow and try and confirm that,” he concluded.