Carlos Sainz has admitted he is “struggling to understand” Ferrari’s performance leap after sealing a front-low lockout in qualifying for the Mexican Grand Prix.
Despite setting pole position for last weekend’s United States GP, Ferrari were largely quiet throughout practice at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
The team’s form continued in the early stages of qualifying, with Sainz and team-mate Charles Leclerc no higher than fourth across Q1 and Q2.
Carlos Sainz stunned by Ferrari’s Mexico Q3 pace
However, the SF-23 car suddenly came alive in Q3 with Leclerc ending the session 0.067s ahead of Sainz with three-time World Champion Max Verstappen – the overwhelming favourite for pole position after topping all three practice sessions – almost a tenth back in third.
Sainz was left bemused by Ferrari’s sudden improvement, admitting he has struggled for rhythm on the low-grip track all weekend until Q3.
He said: “It was a very strange one.
“Honestly, the whole weekend I’ve struggled to put a lap together. The first lap that I put together was in Q3, the first run.
“Suddenly I was P1 at the time, Charles beat me by half a tenth. But I just struggle to understand where suddenly we can find half a second and then go half a second slower on the next lap.
“It’s very tricky with the tyres, the feeling with the car is very strange around this circuit, but we managed to do a good lap when it counted and it puts us in a good position for tomorrow.”
Sainz is the only non-Red Bull driver to take a grand prix victory in 2023, having won from pole position in last month’s Singapore GP.
The Spaniard has admitted that Ferrari will face a tougher challenge in race conditions after Leclerc faded from pole to sixth in Austin last weekend before being disqualified for a technical infringement.
But he is hopeful that Ferrari can come up with a plan to contain the threat of Verstappen’s Red Bull.
He said: “Clearly, we are not as strong in high fuel as we are in low fuel. I think our car benefits a lot from that new tyre, soft-tyre peak at the rear.
“We’re going to see how we can do tomorrow to get those tyres alive, to keep that Red Bull behind because having two cars in front is a good advantage.
“We’re going to try our best.”
Sainz managed his tyres brilliantly to secure the win in Singapore, where it was reported that Leclerc volunteered to start on soft tyres to aid his team-mate’s charge to victory despite knowing it would put him at a strategic advantage.
A similar display of teamwork may be required on Sunday to hold off Verstappen, the winner of 12 of the last 13 races since the Miami GP on May 7.
And considering that remarkable Verstappen track record, it is understandable why Leclerc was cautious to get too excited at this stage as he prepares to launch from pole in Mexico.
“Let’s wait for tomorrow, but until now it’s a good weekend,” he told Sky F1.
“I’m not celebrating pole that much anymore because then it’s only Sunday that it counts and we need to put everything together.
“Having said that, we will go through the exact same preparation, last weekend, yesterday and go our way.
“We did mistakes as a team but that doesn’t mean it’s like this all the time. So I’m sure we’ll get it right tomorrow, we’ll just focus on ourselves and hopefully we’ll have a great race.”
Leclerc is on an extended run since his last taste of Formula 1 victory, that coming at the 2022 Austrian Grand Prix.