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Formula 1

What was behind Leclerc and Ferrari's 'strange' blip

by Scott Mitchell-Malm, Josh Suttill
5 min read

Such was the extent of Charles Leclerc’s dismay after Japanese Grand Prix qualifying that you would not guess he ended it barely a tenth behind his Ferrari Formula 1 team-mate Carlos Sainz.

In a wider context, Leclerc and Ferrari are rightly disappointed with their Suzuka showing. Sainz starts fourth and Leclerc eighth, 0.485s and 0.589s slower than poleman Max Verstappen respectively. Just one round on from a supremely strong showing in Melbourne where Ferrari potentially had Red Bull-beating pace.

“I’ve just been slow,” was Leclerc’s blunt appraisal of his performance.

“Sometimes, you finish your qualifying and you’re like ‘OK, I didn’t do that well’, or didn’t do this corner well or I did a mistake.

“But after a qualifying like this, I’ve got to look at the data because the feeling was quite good but the pace was just extremely slow.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, F1, Japanese GP

“We were so slow. In Q1 I thought I had done an acceptable laptime then I was a second off.

“There’s something strange.”

Leclerc was absolutely baffled by the situation immediately after qualifying finished. “If I forget about the dash and just focus on my feeling, this is a good lap,” he said. “Then you finish the lap and you're nowhere.”

He suspected it had something to do with tyre preparation, especially as Ferrari looks competitive on longer runs. But in the end, it was hardly a disastrous performance or a sign this weekend is a write-off.

"Charles was P2 last week and I think that 18 drivers on the grid would have accepted to be P2 last week. Today, he is one tenth off Carlos, he knows perfectly where he missed something," Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur said.

"The season is long and I'm not worried at all about the situation."

What cost Leclerc dearly

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, F1, Japanese GP

The picture looked worse in the first part of qualifying, admittedly. After the first runs in Q1 Leclerc was a second off the pace and four tenths slower than Sainz – a situation that forced him to use another set of tyres to ensure his progress to Q2.

Leclerc would feel the knock-on effects later. The loss of a set of softs meant he only had one run in Q3, costing him a ‘sighter’ lap before one final push. But it was a reasonable recovery to end all of this with a perfectly respectable deficit to Sainz, albeit translating to a disappointing starting position given how tight that pack of cars behind the top three was.

“Most of the time when you're finishing P8 there's always an explanation for it, whether there's a mistake in one corner, whether it’s set-up,” Leclerc said.

“But today honestly the car felt quite in a good place. The lap felt quite OK. Just not enough grip available to go faster.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, F1, Japanese GP

“When this is the case, especially when you look at the sectors there are patterns into Q1 that have been a bit strange, I believe it's more related to tyre preparation.

“But it's not been only once this year, so we'll have to look into it and try to understand what I can to get those tyres ready for qualifying.

“At the moment I'm struggling with that.”

On the crucial laps, Leclerc bled time to Sainz through the first two sectors, with his sluggish exit out of Turn 1 most costly. He has the advantage on Sainz for most of the final sector but still ends up a tenth shy.

Ferrari's 'bogey' track?

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari, F1, Japanese GP

It would be easy to conclude that Ferrari's taken a step backwards at Suzuka given even the stronger Ferrari was over four tenths off Verstappen who was far from comfortable with his pole lap.

But given the characteristics of the track and the gap it had in Suzuka last year (Leclerc was the lead Ferrari, qualifying 0.665s off Verstappen), Sainz, with good reason, believes Suzuka is something of an anomaly.

"I think we said it coming into the weekend, if you look at last year I was one second off pole here, this year I am half a second more or less," he said.

"I think the step and the progress is there but this is probably a bit of a bogey track in terms of the pure performance.

"It’s clear that this sort of long high-speed corner is where Red Bull and McLaren are a step ahead of us."

Can Ferrari recover in the race?

Ferrari's long run pace at Suzuka has actually been strong enough to even raise some eyebrows at Red Bull - which Helmut Marko indicating to Sky Germany that it was a relief Leclerc qualified as low as he did.

Sainz believes "a win is out of reach". "They [Red Bull] always run really, really slow on Fridays so it looks like we are going to beat them on Sunday and then we are 20 seconds off. They sandbag a bit on the long runs because they know it is their strength.

"Maybe we are a bit closer but it’s not like we are going to find half a second tomorrow."

But Sainz is hopeful he can "get a bit closer" to fellow second-row starter Lando Norris.

Overtaking at Suzuka isn't easy which makes Leclerc's recovery job from eighth that much harder. But he is encouraged by Ferrari's race pace.

"Our car is always better on the Sunday compared to the Saturday, at least this year, so this is a good thing," Leclerc said.

"But it’s a difficult track to overtake on, so we will have to do a good start and then hopefully we can use the car to come back."

Vasseur says Leclerc has "the pace to come back" and described the car's consistency as "under control" in the long runs so far - something particularly important in such a tyre-critical race at Suzuka.

Whether it's enough for Ferrari and Leclerc to save some face on Sunday remains to be seen.

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