Charles Leclerc admits he mistook Sergio Perez’s retirement for Max Verstappen in the Japanese Grand Prix, which would have elevated the Ferrari driver to the podium.
Leclerc started and finished fourth at Suzuka, unable to maintain pace with the two McLarens, who accompanied Verstappen on the podium rostrum.
However, the sister Red Bull of Perez endured a nightmare race, requiring two early trips to the pit lane for repairs after incidents with Lewis Hamilton at the start and then Kevin Magnussen’s Haas at the hairpin.
Red Bull proceeded to retire Perez from the race but elected to send him out again to serve the five-second time penalty he had inherited for spinning Magnussen round.
Prior to the Mexican returning to the track, Leclerc had presumed the slowing Red Bull was Verstappen, prompting him to believe he was on for a podium until the last lap.
“Yeah I didn’t even follow what Max did because I saw him stopping at the Safety Car or after the Safety Car I don’t know what happened there and I thought he wasn’t in the race anymore,” he said.
“So I thought I was doing a podium until the last lap where I actually looked at the board and I was P4, but yeah, I mean, there were really strong.
“Max of course, we expected him to be strong. We expected Checo also, but I don’t know what happened for him and the two McLarens, too. So there were no surprises. It was all as expected, but it was the maximum we could do today.”
Asked whether seeing a Red Bull in the pitlane on the television screen deceived him, Leclerc responded: “No, he slowed down at one point no? Exit of Turn 14. I think it was the VSC yeah, he basically stopped on the left and we all overtook him.”
When it was clarified that it was Perez, Leclerc added: “That’s what it was I thought Max was out of the race at that moment it was just confusing for me.”
A resurfaced track layout at Suzuka and soaring temperatures saw many drivers share concern that the Japanese GP could turn out to be a three-stop race.
But the majority of the front-runners executed a two-stop – including Ferrari, who avoided the degradation troubles that had hampered its race day prospects previously.
Questioned if he was pleased with Ferrari’s progress on that front, Leclerc discussed: “Yes and no, in a way that the pace wasn’t as strong as McLaren, McLaren was super strong and they also had a very low tyre management.
“But I think another weekend like this is good in a way, because it confirms exactly what we understood in the last few races.
“Sector one is definitely one of our main weakness if you look compared to McLaren that’s where most of the time is lost. And on that we will be working on that for the for the rest of the season for next year.”
Leclerc concedes it was a “very difficult” race to manage due to the varying strategies at play and the overhanging threat of the undercut throughout the duration.
“And that’s always difficult because you cannot really cover all scenarios, so you just follow your own instinct,” he continued. “And that worked out at the end for me, but especially to pace manage it was quite tricky.”