Charles Leclerc hopeful of Jeddah recovery but admits Red Bull ‘on another planet’

Henry Valantine
Sergio Perez with Charles Leclerc. Jeddah March 2023.

Sergio Perez speaks to Charles Leclerc after they take the top two positions in qualifying. Saudi Arabia March 2023.

Charles Leclerc will have ground to make up to the leaders in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, but despite showing pace good enough for the front row, he admitted Red Bull are still “on another planet” in terms of outright speed.

Max Verstappen had appeared dominant in all three practice sessions before a driveshaft issue in Q2 ended his qualifying session prematurely on Saturday, which will leave the Red Bull driver down in 15th for the start of the race in Jeddah.

Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez picked up the mantle and took pole position instead on Saturday – the second of his career, and both of which coming in Saudi Arabia – but despite having looked well away from the pace through the session, Leclerc produced an excellent lap at the end of Q3 to finish 0.155s behind the Mexican and went second fastest in qualifying.

That will not count for much, however, as the Ferrari driver came into the weekend with a 10-place grid penalty already confirmed after taking a new ECU on his car beyond his allocation for the season, meaning he will line up 12th instead.

This means he and Verstappen will likely be looking to come through the field together in Jeddah, but even though the reigning World Champion starts behind him, whether or not he will be able to hang onto the Red Bull in the race remains to be seen.

“Happy? Yes and no,” Leclerc said after qualifying finished.

“On one hand, I think it’s been a very difficult weekend in terms of pace for us, but I’m very happy about my lap, I think I put everything in it. It was really, really on the limit.

“On the other hand, Red Bull are on another planet and we are struggling a little bit, so we need to keep pushing – but that’s what we are doing as a team.

“Tomorrow is not going to be easy. I have a 10 grid places penalty, so we’ll be starting a little bit further back. But we’ll focus on the race and hopefully come back in the front as quickly as possible.”

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In terms of speed in the race, the chasing pack behind Red Bull appeared to be very closely matched – with the FP3 standings earlier on Saturday showing the drivers between 3rd and 17th separated by only six tenths of a second.

Leclerc and Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz are unsure about where the Scuderia stack up compared to their rivals on that front, but expects it to be a closely-run affair in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

“Yes, the race pace looked quite good, but it’s very difficult to compare because in FP2 everybody has a very different programme,” he said of the Friday running.

“So we will see, but it seemed a little bit better, but it’s not going to be easy because I feel like everybody is very close in the race pace.”