Charles Leclerc isn’t convinced Ferrari has the pace to convert pole to victory in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix but says the car’s unexpected turn of speed is welcome nonetheless after a difficult start to the season.
Leclerc beat title leader Max Verstappen to pole position by 0.188s after the pair had set identical times with their first runs in Q3, the difference coming in the technical middle sector of the track. It was the Monegasque’s third consecutive pole in Baku but first of the year and first since last season’s Singapore Grand Prix in October.
Ferrari has endured its worst start to a Formula 1 campaign in years, having slipped well off Red Bull Racing’s pace since the end of last season, Leclerc admitted he didn’t expect to be in the pole conversation this weekend.
“Honestly, I did not expect it,” he said. “I think we came into the weekend thinking that it would already be a great result if we were in front of the Astons and the Mercedes, and we find ourselves on pole, so really, really happy with that.”
It’s unclear whether the good times will continue rolling for Ferrari, however, with Leclerc unconvinced that pole position can be taken as a sign that progress has also been made on the SF-23’s troublesome race pace.
“We need to see obviously tomorrow for the sprint race and the race on Sunday, as I think we are a little bit more on the back foot there,” he said.
“One thing for sure is that I think we did a step forward in Australia. On my side I obviously couldn’t show it, but on Carlos (Sainz)’s side I think the feeling was much better during the race.
“I expect the gain to be more in the race, but we were also much further behind in the race. But I think it’s mostly setup. How much better, we still need to see on Sunday. So I think on that, we still have some question marks.
“I am absolutely sure that we did some steps in the right direction. I’m not sure if it’s enough though.”
Still, Leclerc was happy to take the pole for its pure morale value to the team in the wake of news that racing director Laurent Mekies is leaving at the end of the year and speculation about further defections, including a rumor that the Monegasque himself is attempting to switch to Mercedes.
“I think the whole team needed it,” he said. “It’s part of our job — I think any team in Formula 1, you need to deal with rumors and pressure but it’s obviously sometimes a bit more difficult to perform under those circumstances, and we did really well. I think it’s good for the whole team.”
Carlos Sainz fared less well after a day of struggle. Though he qualified fourth, he was a mammoth 0.813s slower than his pole-winning teammate, in part thanks to having to use an extra set of tires in Q1 after being caught out by the dual red flags.
“It was a very tricky afternoon and morning,” he told Sky Sports F1. “Since FP1 I was a bit nowhere with my feeling, with the pace of the car. I was just struggling quite a lot. It meant when it came to Q3 … I was coming from behind, really struggling, and it wasn’t a good day for me.
“The worst thing of all is that there’s parc ferme and obviously it will be tough to change anything from here onwards. I will have to find everything within myself. I will make sure I try to find some rhythm and pace.”