Leclerc on pole in shock Ferrari resurgence
Charles Leclerc has stormed to a third pole position in a row after Ferrari stunned to usurp Mercedes at the head of the grid.
Ferrari looked down for the count during Friday practice, when neither over a single lap nor over a race simulation did the team look competitive, but an overnight turnaround inserted Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel into the battle for pole.
The balance of power swung between the two, and in the top-10 shootout it was Vettel who was the first to fire, setting a blistering first lap more than 0.3 seconds quicker than his teammate and an entire second faster than Hamilton.
But by his own admission Vettel peaked too early. His second attempt couldn’t match his electric first attempt, and after a messy first sector and a mistake at turn 18 he abandoned the lap to return to the pits.
The way was clear for Leclerc, who had better prepared his tyres the second time around to set a fastest first sector, and two personal-best times at the second intermediate and the finishing line was enough for him to pip Vettel by 0.22 seconds.
“I’m extremely happy about today,” he beamed. “It was a good lap — a very good lap.”
The Marina Bay Street Circuit wasn’t expected to suit the slippery SF90, which hitherto lacked the aerodynamic performance to be quick on the downforce-demanding track, but a raft of upgrades bespoke for the Singapore Grand Prix countered expectations, and Leclerc credited the team for its work to give him a shot at pole.
“We came here knowing it would be a difficult track for us, but the team has done an amazing job to bring the package we needed,” he said.
“We brought some new bits that worked properly, which was good to see — it’s not always the case, but it was this weekend.”
Behind Leclerc, Lewis Hamilton was also making inroads on his first underwhelming time, and three personal-best sectors, including a fastest final sector, delivered him to second on the grid, jumping Vettel by just 0.03 seconds.
“I really needed something special at the end,” he said. “I don’t know where Ferrari picked up their pace today, because it’s not potentially one of their tracks, but they did a great job.
“I’m very happy to be on the front row in the mix with them.”
Hamilton added that he expected to be “aggressive” in the race tomorrow, and Friday practice suggested he would be well placed to do so, with Mercedes holding a significant pace advantage during race simulations on Friday.
Though Ferrari had notably improved after Friday practice, Vettel foreshadowed a different power balance in the race.
“It will certainly feel different tomorrow,” he said. “Let’s see what the tyres will do, if we are able to push the full two hours or if we have to manage [them].”
Max Verstappen qualified fourth for Red Bull Racing and almost 0.6 seconds off pole, a disappointing dividend for a car that typically performs strongly at slow-speed and street circuits.
The Dutchman was without explanation for the team’s lacklustre showing, but he would at least take heart from having beaten Valtteri Bottas in the sister Mercedes — the Finn qualified fifth and almost a second off pole ahead of Alex Albon in the second Red Bull Racing car.
Carlos Sainz qualified seventh to head the midfield in a tight battle with Renault in their squabble over fourth in the constructors standings.
But the McLaren driver was separated from teammate Lando Norris in 10th by both Renault drivers, Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg in eighth and ninth respectively.
Sergio Perez qualified 11th for Racing Point, but the Mexican will serve a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change after a rear-axle crash during Saturday practice, dropping him to 16th on the grid.
Antonio Giovinazzi outqualified Alfa Romeo teammate Kimi Raikkonen for only the fifth time this season for 12th and 14th, the pair separated by Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly in 13th.
Kevin Magnussen qualified 15th for Haas ahead of Daniil Kvyat in the second Toro Rosso car, the last drivers to benefit from Perez’s penalty.
Racing Point’s Lance Stroll qualified 17th ahead of Romain Grosjean in the sister Haas car, leaving Williams teammates George Russell and Robert Kubica to lock out the back row of the grid in 19th and 20th respectively.