Amid the maelstrom swirling on the other side of the Ferrari garage in the last few days at the Las Vegas Grand Prix, Charles Leclerc has been razor-sharp. Fastest in the sole practice session on Friday, the Monegasque is so often ice-cool on the tight, twisty street circuits that so regularly crop up now in Formula One.
Such was his confidence – and previous qualifying form in similar conditions – Leclerc was actually favourite with the bookies for pole position, ahead of Max Verstappen. The Ferrari man proved them right, sealing a Ferrari one-two, with Carlos Sainz qualifying in second.
Unfortunately however, the Spaniard will not be starting alongside his team-mate for the inaugural Saturday night race. Sainz’s ridiculous 10-place grid penalty for exceeding his gearbox allocation – which only came about due to the FIA’s incompetence after manhole-gate on opening night – has wiped out Leclerc’s most helpful aid to win the 50-lap race. For those desperate for an engrossing battle at the front, not least F1 and LVGP chiefs, it is a bitter blow.
Leclerc will have to break an unwelcome streak, too. Since his last win 16 months ago in Austria, the 26-year-old has been in pole position eight times. Rather excruciatingly, six of those eight have still resulted in podiums. Ferrari’s race pace has been their Achilles’ heel, but Leclerc is optimistic after Sainz was victorious on a similar track layout in Singapore this September.
“The race is where we lack performance so I hope we can put it all together,” he said post-qualifying. “We know that Red Bull are going to be very strong, but we’ve had positive signs on the high fuel [in practice] – hopefully we can convert that pole position to a win.
“I think we are closer [to Max] than other races. If there’s one race to win [this year] other than Singapore, it’s this one.”
Leclerc will need two things that have deserted him in order to taste victory in Nevada tomorrow: a peerless strategy and just a bit of luck. From lights out, Leclerc must get off to an exemplary start, while hoping Verstappen – who compared the track to the National League after qualifying – on the dirtier side of the track, falls back into the pack. Early on, staying outside the DRS window of Verstappen behind ahead of the Vegas strip section – now the second-longest straight on the calendar – is imperative.
But Ferrari must be bold with their tactical calls from lights out. The Scuderia have hampered themselves since producing a title-winning car at the start of 2022 with daft decisions from the pit lane. In a battle between Ferrari strategists and their rivals at Red Bull, there has been no contest.
It is unlikely, given Red Bull’s outstanding race pace and straight-line speed. But Verstappen’s day to forget in Singapore two months ago should give Leclerc and the rest of the pack hope, even if it is simply a glimpse of an opportunity.
TOP-10 - LAS VEGAS GRAND PRIX QUALIFYING
1. Charles Leclerc
2. Max Verstappen
3. George Russell
4. Pierre Gasly
5. Alex Albon
6. Logan Sargeant
7. Valtteri Bottas
8. Kevin Magnussen
9. Fernando Alonso
10. Lewis Hamilton
Earlier in the day, Formula One and Vegas GP management did their no reputation no good with a lengthy statement explaining Thursday night’s titanic mess, which saw ticket holders witness just eight minutes of cars on track. Perplexingly, in among 600 words, there was no apology and no refund offered; instead, a $200 voucher to use at the Las Vegas Grand Prix gift shop.
After a jumbled-up order in the final practice session, there was a sense of mystique surrounding who was the quickest team around this 3.8-mile street circuit. A circuit which, despite this week’s shenanigans, looks absolutely stunning from the sky. Think Singapore and Jeddah on steroids.
On the track, Lando Norris admitted this week he “did not mind” where his first win comes – but it won’t be this weekend. Both McLarens, surprisingly short of pace, were knocked out in Q1 – Norris will start tomorrow’s race in 15th, Oscar Piastri in 18th. A recovery drive will be in order on Saturday night.
It was also another day to forget for Lewis Hamilton. The seven-time world champion failed to qualify for the final session and will start the Vegas race in 10th. Resigned to his fate afterwards, he simply stated to race engineer Peter Bonnington: “Couldn’t go faster mate.”
But his team-mate George Russell could – the Brit will start behind the top two in third tomorrow and will be looking to steal a march on Verstappen heading into turn one. Yet, the standout team in Vegas qualifying was Williams, with Alex Albon starting fifth and rookie driver Logan Sargeant producing his best qualifying performance of the season for sixth. And with it, the American could well have sealed his 2024 seat.