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Formula 1

Why one of 2020’s best qualifying laps will probably be futile

by Matt Beer
6 min read

All five of Charles Leclerc’s top-five starts in the 2020 Formula 1 season have been minor miracles given Ferrari’s current situation.

But the manner of his fourth place on the Sakhir Grand Prix grid was something else again.

And yet it seems even more likely to be in vain than his other star qualifying performances.

Leclerc went into Saturday short on mileage having had a halfshaft fail right at the start of second practice on Friday.

As Ferrari sporting director Laurent Mekies put it: “He basically did half a lap in FP2 yesterday, so we spent a lot of time looking at that half a lap with him between yesterday and today to try to draw the right conclusions for where we put the car today”.

Tenth in Friday’s opening session, but down to 13th in final practice, Leclerc wasn’t looking like a potential star of qualifying, though things began looking up when he went seventh in Q1.

It’s that progression – especially given Leclerc and Ferrari had one of their weaker races on the normal Bahrain layout last week – that impressed Mekies most.

“What’s remarkable in what he did today is that he’s not only been in the right rhythm straight away, but in the way he developed his rhythm and his pace through FP3, through qualifying,” said Mekies.

“If you look at the lap time in FP3 or in the beginning of the qualifying sessions, we were not topping the times, we were not P4-like.

“But he simply built in more and more confidence, more and more rhythm and developed to being able to produce that lap.

“That’s the aspect we are the happiest with tonight and it’s good to have him back in this sort of rhythm.

“We always knew that last week he was never quite as happy as he normally is with the car, so when it’s like that you always leave a tenth or two on the table.

“And a tenth or two can make you switch from P4/P5 to P12.

“So it’s good that thanks to everybody’s work we could be on the good side of that comparison today and despite the lack of running yesterday that we could nail that qualifying.”

Leclerc used soft tyres throughout third practice, leaving him low on sets of them for qualifying – when in any case Ferrari was determined to get past Q2 on mediums if it could so it could start the race on them.

“We tried everything we could to go through with the medium,” Mekies admitted. “We really felt that it would be a serious advantage.”

It looked touch and go. Leclerc was sixth fastest with his medium-tyre time going into Q2’s final minutes, with the Mercedes the only cars on that compound quicker than him. The Red Bulls and Renaults were trying that tactic too, and Leclerc was ahead of them all, albeit by just 0.002s over Max Verstappen.

But with everyone bar the Mercedes jumping onto softs, Leclerc had no choice but to do likewise.

Ferrari hoped that would be just a precautionary move – that Leclerc’s initial time would hold up and he could abort that soft-tyre lap.

It quickly became clear that wouldn’t be possible as he was bundled out of the top 10, so he had to complete the soft-tyre lap and jumped back to sixth.

“Better that way that we made it through to Q3 and we can start P4 tomorrow,” said Mekies.

Leclerc’s lap was 0.350s faster than team-mate Sebastian Vettel’s back in 13th. Vettel had had a precautionary engine change prior to qualifying, but it had been completed in good time and Ferrari doubted there was any performance impact. That gap came from the driving.

Now Leclerc was going into Q3 with just one new set of softs left, in a session where the short lap meant there might be scope for three runs.

Instead Leclerc produced his own version of one-shot qualifying. A single run at the start of the session, a spectacular 53.613s lap that put him behind only Verstappen in a provisional second place ahead of both Mercedes at that point, and then back to the pits and out of the car. Job done.

“I took the decision to go early in the session instead of waiting until the end of the session for two reasons,” explained Leclerc to Sky.

“First, I was expecting the traffic to be a mess at the end of the session and second, I just had the idea and I just wanted to get out on track and do the job, which we did.

“To be honest, I don’t think I could have done anything better going later in the session.

“I don’t like to say it’s a perfect lap, you can always do something better. But honestly, everything I wanted to do, I did it.”

As he rewatched a replay of the lap, Leclerc said he was “scared” into Turn 1 because he was braking “very, very late” but he “managed to make the corner anyway and then I had a very good exit too”.

A sudden snap through Turn 4 made him think, “Oh my God, I don’t know if the tyres are going to last until the end of the lap”.

Through the link section at the far end of the Outer layout, Leclerc felt he did “such a huge step from FP3 to quali there in terms of driving, using a lot more of the track in entry on the kerb on the right”, and admitted the technique was inspired by watching some onboard footage from Pierre Gasly’s car from practice.

Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri Sakhir GP F1 2020

Gasly, who ended up ninth on the grid, joked that he might have to find a way to conceal his tricks from the onboard camera after that.

“We all spy a bit on each other. We all look a bit at onboards from other drivers and try to pick up lines, kerb usage or whatever we can see,” explained Gasly.

“Maybe I should find a way that he can’t really find that extra pace for qualifying because today he clearly beat us and before that I think we had the edge. He did an amazing lap, so congrats to him.”

There was just the final corner to go, a place where Leclerc had “been struggling during the whole quali”, but on the lap that mattered he “finally managed to do it well”.

Inevitably the Mercedes improved across their three runs, having started Q3 with used tyres, and eventually took the front row. Leclerc’s time from that glorious single run still held up for fourth place.

But every time he’s pulled off a sensational qualifying result in 2020, Leclerc’s faced a tough race trying to stay anywhere near that high. And the Sakhir GP could be the toughest yet on that front.

His compromised qualifying strategy means he has no choice but to start on soft tyres that are expected to fade fast. He has no fresh soft tyres left, and just one set of new mediums left having used them so intensively in Q2, and two of hards. Mekies predicts a race of varied strategies and on-the-hoof reactive tactics due to the unusual circuit and high degradation. Leclerc has very few tyre options to be reactive with.

Then there’s the straightline speed element. Leclerc was only 10th fastest on that front over the finish line, before falling right down to 18th by the speed trap at the first corner. That lack of acceleration compared to the rest of the field underlines the underpowered, too-high-drag nature of the car Ferrari’s ended up having to field in 2020.

A car with poor straightline speed and very little tyre life is a car without much hope of holding off faster rivals on this quick track full of long fast straights.

“A few times this year, we’ve been qualifying ahead of what we probably should have,” said Leclerc.

“This brings a lot of hopes for Sunday and then it gets frustrating in the car on Sunday.

“But let’s be realistic, we need to learn from it and tomorrow is going to be a difficult day.

“I don’t think we will be as competitive as today. I don’t think we are the fourth fastest car on track.

“But I’ll try to maximise what I have.”

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