Incredibly rare qualifying session leaves Ferrari drivers split on way forward

Thomas Maher
Charles Leclerc's Ferrari at the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix.

Charles Leclerc's Ferrari.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc said his qualifying session at Suzuka was of the sort he might only experience “once a season” as he lines up in eighth.

With Carlos Sainz finishing the session in fourth place, Leclerc’s sole effort in Q3 was only good enough for eighth – despite the Monegasque driver being happy with the handling and balance of his Ferrari.

Charles Leclerc: I tried many different things, nothing worked

Leclerc was utterly mystified by his lack of pace, expressing over team radio that he felt he’d extracted the maximum from himself and the car – the Ferrari driver had set the then-fastest middle sector of anyone during his flying lap, only to fall short by half a second overall.

While lining up in eighth, Leclerc was only a tenth slower than Sainz, and the Monegasque said he couldn’t really figure out where he was losing pace during qualifying as he was enjoying the feel of his Ferrari around the high-speed sweeps of Suzuka.

“It was one of those sessions you maybe get once in a season,” he told Sky F1.

“It’s certainly not a good feeling. Everything feels okay. The balance is not way off.

“We can always improve a little bit but [that’s] like every qualifying. If I rely on the feeling at the end of the lap, I’m like, ‘Okay, this is quite a good lap’, and then you look at the board and you are a second off so when this happens, normally we look more at tyres and the way you bring the tyres to temperature.

“I’ve tried many different things today and they didn’t work so, for now, I don’t have the answer.”

Ferrari’s race pace was the fastest of all in FP3, with average times some seven-tenths of a second quicker than Red Bull’s, and Leclerc is hoping to make inroads into stronger positions on Sunday.

“The positive thing, if we have to find one, is that our race pace looks to be stronger but, on a track like this, qualifying position is extremely important,” he said.

“The race pace looks strong. I just hope we have the opportunity to overtake because, on a track like this, it is going to be very, very difficult to overtake so I’ll do my best.”

Having only embarked on a single qualifying run in Q3, Leclerc said he doubts the timing of this run – being offset against the others – had any impact on his laptime potential.

“Not many people improved [on the final runs], I don’t know if the wind slightly changed, we’ll look into the data and our time on track to see whether our time on track was a little bit worse,” he said.

“But I really don’t think so. From Q1 to Q3, it hasn’t been a strong session and, already in the first half of Q1, I was, ‘Okay, the feeling is quite okay’.

“Normally, when this is the case, the time comes with it. Today has been completely the opposite.”

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With Sainz clinching P4, again finishing ahead of Leclerc after winning last time out in Australia, the Spaniard was circumspect as he admitted Ferrari haven’t had the pace to compete for stronger positions so far.

“Especially after FP3 we saw we didn’t have the pace as FP1 and we thought it was going to be a tougher weekend,” he explained.

“We actually made a good step in qualy, it’s just Lando two-tenths in front for P3 is too big for Suzuka, normally the gaps are very, very tight. Two-tenths was too much.

“But I did some very good laps in this qualy and I was happy with my performance. It’s still a track where the Ferrari is not the fastest car around and we know why.

Sainz may have been able to compete with Max Verstappen last time out, but he doubts Ferrari has the pace to be able to fight for anything beyond a podium finish this time out.

“We have been better on the race pace this weekend but I don’t know if it will be good or bad,” he said.

“I hope we can fight them [McLaren] in the race because in qualy it was impossible.

“In the race, it would be nice to have a fight for the podium between Lando, me, Fernando, and Mercedes behind. It should be an interesting battle for the podium, I think the Red Bulls are unfortunately in a different league around here.”

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