With Charles Leclerc believing that Ferrari and McLaren are pretty equal in race pace, he suspects whichever team is ahead after the Japanese Grand Prix start will go on to make the podium.
While Max Verstappen was in a class of his own at Suzuka, Ferrari would have harboured strong hopes of getting the better of their rivals in the ‘best of the rest’ battle behind Verstappen.
As it turned out, they were able to defeat two of them in Mercedes and Aston Martin, Leclerc even clearing Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez, but McLaren would unleash enough performance to get the better of Ferrari.
Charles Leclerc admits Ferrari surprised by McLaren gains
Oscar Piastri delivered a sublime performance to ensure his place on the front row alongside Verstappen, with Lando Norris in the other McLaren set to head row three alongside Leclerc.
Less than a tenth of a second covered Piastri, Norris and Leclerc by the end of Q3, but Leclerc said McLaren had found a performance step in qualifying which Ferrari knew they could not match.
“I definitely did not expect to be that close to the McLarens,” he told Sky F1 when asked if Ferrari were hoping to beat the McLarens? “So we did not expect to beat them, no.
“For some reason they found something in Sector 1 from yesterday, they did a huge step forward and since FP3 we knew that we didn’t really have that in the car. So, it was quite difficult then to come back in Sector 2 and 3.
“Also, they had a really good management of qualifying. They did two very good laps and so they have two sets, one more set of softs for Q3 and I think that we lost a little bit there too.
“But all in all, honestly my lap in Q3, I don’t think there was much more there, so I don’t regret any choices we’ve made.”
As for whether Ferrari can muscle their way onto the podium tomorrow, Leclerc feels this will be determined by what the order is after the start.
And if that is Ferrari still being behind McLaren, then he does not rate their chances. Flip the scenario though and he believes Ferrari have a strong chance of making the top three.
“It’s going to be tricky, because I think our race pace is not too dissimilar to McLarens,” said Leclerc of Ferrari’s podium prospects.
“So if we pass them at the start, I think it will be difficult for them to pass us on track. If we don’t, then I think it will be difficult for us to pass them on track.”
Carlos Sainz still struggling to nail Ferrari sweet spot
Sainz came into the Japanese Grand Prix with all the momentum having won last weekend in Singapore, snapping Red Bull’s F1 2023 unbeaten run and Verstappen’s 10-race winning streak, but it was Leclerc who won out in the Ferrari intra-team battle over one lap at Suzuka.
And Sainz admitted that he is yet to really get the SF-23 into its ideal operating window as he prepares to start the race from P6.
“It was quite tricky all weekend and never really found the sweet spot with a setup,” he told Sky F1.
“I mean, these track characteristics and we were playing a lot with the car, changing it from one session to another and probably never really found the sweet spot all weekend, it probably compromised a bit my qualifying.
“But it’s not like a much faster lap or cleaner lap would have given me many more positions. And also, clearly McLaren and Red Bull are a step in front this weekend and we’re just the third-best team so far.”
Asked if he has any sources of encouragement for the race, Sainz showed that he is keeping an open mind as he teased an “exciting” race with high rates of tyre degradation.
“Let’s see. I think it’s going to be an interesting race with many, many stops and a lot of tyre degradation,” he suggested. “So who knows what can happen tomorrow.
“It will be a bit of a different race compared to what we’re used to, so it could be an exciting one.
“I think we can definitely do a better job tomorrow and hopefully, when we get a bit into a rhythm, I can also be a bit better.”
With Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton starting P7 and George Russell P8, Ferrari could potentially move ahead of Mercedes into P2 in the Constructors’ Championship with a strong result, the gap currently 24 points in Mercedes’ favour.