Second place in the Azerbaijan sprint confirmed Ferrari’s post-qualifying prediction that it still doesn’t have the race pace to contend for victory despite having made a clear step forward, reckons Charles Leclerc.
Leclerc held off a charging Sergio Perez at the start of the sprint, but his defense of the lead lasted only until DRS was enabled following an early safety car intervention.
The SF-23’s strong form through the technical middle sector wasn’t enough to generate a buffer, and the Mexican breezed past down the front straight and onwards to a comfortable victory.
“It confirmed a little bit what we thought,” Leclerc said. “Red Bull still has the upper hand in the race.
“As I said, if winning is not possible, we just need to take the maximum points, and today there wasn’t anything more. I’m happy with second place.”
Leclerc also revealed that he was struggling with tire wear in the final 10 minutes or so despite the sprint lasting only 17 laps — a potentially foreboding sign ahead of the 51-lap grand prix.
“I didn’t fight Checo too much, because I just wanted to keep my tires. I knew that was our weak point,” he explained. “We were losing a little bit too much at the end with the degradation.
“I tried to stay in the DRS of Checo so he could pull me on the straights, but that wasn’t enough.”
But there were signs of silver lining in Leclerc’s defeat. The Monegasque was able to hold off Max Verstappen to prevent a Red Bull Racing one-two finish, and Ferrari was clearly the second-quickest car in race trim for the first time this season. Notwithstanding that Verstappen’s progress was slowed by damage picked up in a skirmish with George Russell on the first lap, that all amounted to a considerable and heartening improvement for Ferrari.
“We must not forget how far behind we were on race pace two races ago,” Leclerc said. “We did a step forward, but we are still not where we want to be. I’ll try to go for the win tomorrow even though the Red Bull seems slightly quicker. Let’s see what’s possible to improve tomorrow and we’ll give it all.”
Leclerc’s relative optimism contrasted with a downcast teammate Carlos Sainz, who qualified and finished fifth after never looking in contention for a podium.
The Spaniard said his issues this weekend stemmed from a setup mistake made during the sole practice session on Friday, after which parc ferme conditions have prevented him from reverting to a friendlier configuration.
“I’m not surprised [I’m struggling],” he said. “When you can change nothing in the car and you cannot really experiment to get yourself comfortable, you’re in for a difficult weekend like I am at now.
“I’ve done some steps with my driving and changing a few things trying to adapt myself to the balance that I have, and to the track, but its proven to be a very challenging weekend.”
Sainz said he didn’t expect any improvement in the grand prix, which he’ll start from fourth on the grid after qualifying more than 0.8s down on pole-getter Leclerc.
“At this point, knowing what the pace is this weekend, it’s more of a damage-limitation weekend for me than anything else,” he said. “I’m really struggling out there with confidence, always feeling really, really on the limit of the rear axle. It’s not a nice feeling to have around Baku.
“I’m going to need more time after this weekend to really go deeper in the data, because now with this format you simply don’t have time. It’s impossible to take conclusions or to change anything that would help me get a bit more comfortable.”