Leclerc points to “clean FP1” as key strength to taking “unexpected” US F1 GP pole

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Charles Leclerc grabbed a surprise pole position for the 2023 United States GP, after Max Verstappen had his final lap deleted due to track limits. The Monegasque pointed to a “clean FP1” for him and Ferrari as the key for his impressive pole position in Austin.

Photo credit: Scuderia Ferrari

Leclerc looked at ease with his SF-23 throughout the qualifying hour in Austin, topping Q2 by just 0.004s ahead of the reigning three-time world champion Max Verstappen, but at the final runs in Q3 it was Verstappen who had the edge by just five thousandths of a second – but crucially the Dutchman went over the white lines in turn 19, and had his time deleted, giving Leclerc his second pole position of the season – with the first also coming in a Sprint weekend, at the Azerbaijan GP.

Speaking after the session, Leclerc explained how having a good free practice with the baseline setup in his Ferrari – given there is only one session in a Sprint weekend – was the key to his impressive performance in qualifying:

“I think as a team we did a great job,” he said. “We know that in a Sprint weekend it’s more important than ever to have a clean FP1, and we did – we had a good FP1 and we started with a strong baseline, thanks to the work the guys have done to prepare [for] this weekend – with the car feeling good straightaway.

“Yes, we are [pleasantly surprised with the pace]. In the last sector, we were very strong, whether it’s in FP1 this morning or in qualifying, but all in all honestly we have a strong car, and the feeling with the car is good.

“And that is our strength, we’ve seen it quite a few times this year, whenever we have a Sprint weekend we are always – well, most of the time – performing better than expected, just because we arrive in FP1 and we have a very solid base with the car, [then] we get to qualifying and we do the job.”

Despite taking pole by over a tenth of a second ahead of Lando Norris’ McLaren, the now 21-time pole-sitter admitted his last lap in Q3 had some “mistakes”, but pointed out that he calculated the risks he would take in order to find time in certain areas, and how other drivers also found it difficult to execute the perfect lap around the bumpy COTA track:

“I was feeling good, I was happy throughout qualifying. [But] the last lap in Q3 there were some mistakes here and there, but I think it wasn’t easy for anybody.

“There were some mistakes here and there, but I pushed like crazy, so I knew it wouldn’t be the perfect lap – but I knew also that I would win [lap time] by taking a bit more risk elsewhere, and it paid off.

“It’s not something that we expected, so I’m really happy.”

The Monegasque is wary that his rivals will make more progress with the understanding of their cars ahead of the Sprint Shootout, but said he will do “everything” in order to secure pole for the shorter race as well:

“Tomorrow might be a bit more difficult, because people will learn from today and be a bit more comfortable with their cars, but I’ll do everything to be on pole again tomorrow [for the Sprint].”

Last year’s pole-sitter at COTA and Leclerc’s team-mate, Carlos Sainz had his hopes of a win in US soil dashed after contact with George Russell sent him spinning around at the first corner, and he eventually had to retire his Ferrari. When asked if this will be in his mind come Sunday, Leclerc admitted the uphill first corner is “always tricky” but said he prefers to be on pole than anywhere else:

“Of course, into turn one it’s always tricky here,” he admitted. “But at the same time, it’s always better to be starting in the front rather than being at the back.

“I’m really happy, I love this track and I love the vibe that there is around this track in the city and in the country, so it’s great to be here.”