Charles Leclerc left with ‘bittersweet’ feeling after narrow Max Verstappen defeat

Jamie Woodhouse
Charles Leclerc drives upgraded Ferrari SF-23. Austria, June 2023.

Charles Leclerc at the wheel of the upgraded Ferrari SF-23. Austria, June 2023.

Charles Leclerc came within a whisker of denying Max Verstappen pole position in Austria, but while it hurt to miss out, he also wants to stay realistic.

While Verstappen carried his session-topping form from FP1 into qualifying on this Austria sprint weekend, the Red Bull driver was never more than a tenth clear of his closest pursuers in Q1 and Q2, that remaining the case come the all-important Q3.

And there, with Verstappen sitting on provisional pole, a late charge from Leclerc made for a very uncomfortable wait for the Dutchman.

Charles Leclerc almost topples Max Verstappen

Leclerc claimed a pair of pole positions the last time the sprint format was active in Baku, and as he charged for the line, it looked like becoming three from three, but he would fall short by a mere 0.048s.

Still, while that was “frustrating”, Leclerc acknowledged that this has been a rough season so far for Ferrari, so that result must be seen as a positive, and now Ferrari will look to find out whether the upgraded SF-23 has moved on from its tyre-eating habits thanks to upgrades brought to Austria.

The Saturday sprint will offer an opening taste of where the drivers stand over a multi-lap stint, before the main event on Sunday, the Austrian Grand Prix.

“I’m never happy when I’m second. I’m only happy when I’m first and today we missed pole position by very little,” Leclerc reflected after qualifying.

“But to be honest, we also need to be realistic and looking at our season this is probably the best qualy we’ve had apart from Baku, of course, where we were ahead of everyone.

“But the team has done an incredible job trying to bring these upgrades as early as possible into the season and I think this has helped us so far. Now we need to confirm that in the race.

“But yeah, it’s bittersweet. We were very close to Max, but just not enough, which is frustrating.”

Asked for his gut feeling on how Ferrari’s race pace is shaping up, having had just the one hour of practice for the race weekend, Leclerc replied: “The feeling is pretty good and was good in Montreal, but this really is the big question mark that we need to…

“We’ll see already tomorrow I think with a sprint qualy, but obviously it might rain, so difficult to see anything, but in the race on Sunday, that’s the answer that we want to try and have and see whether we really did a step forward in the race especially.” recommends

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Carlos Sainz feels Ferrari upgrades working

Sainz will head the second row on Sunday’s grid and is feeling upbeat regarding the upgraded SF-23, believing Ferrari have taken a step forward at high-speed circuits, which were a weakness they were trying to address.

Now, it remains to be seen whether the alterations will fix that other glaring issue of tyre management.

“Yes, it does feel quite a step better in the high-speed corners, which was our main limitation in Barcelona,” said Sainz of the upgraded SF-23.

“It looks like we’ve done a step at least in those kind of speeds. Now we will need to see our race pace which we know it can vary track to track.

“We will make sure we try and put together the best possible race, but also knowing that it’s going to be tougher in the race than what it was in qualy today.”

Sainz was one of many drivers to be stung by track limits during qualifying, the Spaniard feeling particularly hard done by, and he revealed that this prompted him to use an extra set of soft tyres, which had a ripple effect throughout the remainder of the session.

Asked if he was disappointed not to make the front row, Sainz replied: “Yeah a little bit, but I was also a bit thrown off by track limits in Q2.

“I actually had to run again when I was okay with track limits, but we played it safe, we used an extra set, which maybe threw me a bit off and it was not ideal.

“But overall, I was feeling strong with the car, feeling fast all day, which is good carry over from Canada and now we can focus in putting another strong day together tomorrow.

“But at least for Sunday P3 I think it’s a good place to start.”

As for whether pole for the sprint is possible in Saturday’s sprint shootout, Sainz revealed that he has now used all of his new sets of soft tyres due to the track limits drama, so if he does make it to Q3, that will hurt his chances. Or will it?

Rain is forecast to be around on Saturday, so if that takes the slick tyres out of the equation, then Sainz reckons sprint pole is possible.

On whether P1 is possible on the sprint grid, Sainz replied: “Unfortunately, if the conditions are mixed, yes, if it’s dry, today I’ve used all my six sets of softs due to the track limits issue.

“So if I get to Q3 on a soft tyre, I will use a scrubbed instead of a new, which will put me definitely a bit on the backfoot compared to the guys who have saved a new set.

“So unfortunately that is the situation, which is also not deserved because as I said we didn’t do track limits in Q2, but it is what it is and hopefully it’s mixed conditions and we can fight in equal conditions with everyone else.”

Ferrari took their most recent grand prix win at this venue, Leclerc having claimed victory in the 2022 Austrian GP.

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