Sergio Perez suggested that Ferrari were sandbagging before qualifying in Bahrain, with Max Verstappen then triggering a light-hearted exchange.
There had of course been countless attempts to judge the pecking order at the start of F1 2023 based on testing and free practice, but qualifying was where the teams would finally lay all of their cards on the table.
Charles Leclerc had predicted that when this happened, Ferrari likely would not have had the pace to go for pole, yet he was the closest challenger to the Red Bull duo of Verstappen and Perez.
Leclerc was ultimately three-tenths shy of Verstappen’s time, but that was after he opted against a final run on new softs, deciding instead to save that set for the race.
Ferrari then are looking strong, now that in Perez’s opinion, they have taken the sandbags out of that SF-23.
“Well, the Ferrari has definitely picked up throughout,” he told media including PlanetF1.com. “I think they were sandbagging a bit through the first days of testing and during the weekend.
“They’re definitely there, they’re very strong, so I will expect them to be in the fight for tomorrow’s race.
“And you can already see that it’s not only Red Bull and Ferrari, there are plenty of other teams that have joined the competition, so if you don’t get a perfect lap in Q2, Q1, you really have to put more tyres on. So yeah, the competition has increased certainly for this year.”
So, had Ferrari been sandbagging all along?
“I don’t know, definitely not as much as…”
At that point Leclerc was interrupted by the Bahrain GP polesitter Verstappen.
“Maybe you found a sandbag in the car?” Verstappen jokingly asked.
“I didn’t find it myself,” Leclerc replied with a smile. “And I’m not aware of it.”
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Instead, Leclerc stressed that Ferrari had simply come across a spike in performance, and urged his team to discover why, believing this is just as important as investigating their weak points.
He maintains though that Red Bull will be strong in the race, as will Aston Martin with Fernando Alonso starting P5, so he stands by that decision to keep hold of an extra set of new softs.
“We found a lot of performance in qualifying, I mean a lot of performance, we were in the fight, which is something that I probably did not expect, so it’s a good surprise,” he said.
“To tell you where we found the performance, I’m not really sure. So we need to look into that, because as much as we need to understand the bad days, I think we also need to understand the good days, that’s how we will improve, but good that it’s like that.
“But we also need to be realistic, I mean, those guys, and also Aston Martin seems to be really, really quick in the race, which is why I think we made that choice in Q3 to be willing to lose one or two positions at the start, but having new tyres to put all the chances on our side, which I’m sure is the right choice.”
Additional reporting by Thomas Maher