Charles Leclerc has explained that better preparation on the out lap was behind the time gain Ferrari found in Q3 to lockout the front row for the Mexico City Grand Prix.

Ferrari had appeared to struggle for pace against its rivals on Friday, prompting Leclerc to admit it would be a “huge surprise” if the team could compete for pole position.

However, the Italian marque stunned the competition early in Q3 when Sainz stormed to the top of the timing tower before Leclerc eclipsed him further by only 0.067s.

Despite being unable to improve on his final tour, Leclerc retained top spot, conceding that until the final segment Ferrari “had no idea” it upheld the speed to achieve pole.

“As I said earlier, it’s again a really big surprise,” Leclerc reflected. “But we keep saying that every time we do a pole position, so people will stop believing in what we say. But I did not expect it.

“And this time until really late in the session. I think in most of the other sessions from Q1 we were on it and then we saw that there was a potential for pole position. There, until Q3, we had no idea that it was inside the car.

“And yeah, for some reason in Q3 I managed to put more or less everything together apart from the last sector. And straight away the lap time came straight away. So that was a good surprise.”

But after Sainz declared Ferrari must understand why its SF-23 proved to be inconsistent across Q3, Leclerc believes qualifying demonstrated it does not yet have a car that is consistently competitive.

“But I think it still shows us that our car is still a bit peaky,” he cautioned. “And we need to work in that direction for it to make it better in all conditions.”

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari SF-23. 28.10.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 20, Mexican Grand Prix, Mexico City, Mexico, Qualifying Day.

Both Ferrari drivers ended up outside of the top 10 in FP3 after enduring compromised runs and didn’t trouble the top of the times again in the first two stages of qualifying.

However, Leclerc managed to improve upon his time in Q2 by eight-tenths in Q3 to bag pole. The Monegasque attributed his huge improvement to a smoother build-up lap.

“Just having a cleaner lap,” he answered when discussing the sudden lap time gain Ferrari unlocked.

“In Q2, it was a bit messy with the traffic exiting the pit lane. The warm-up is super important and it’s very, very difficult to put the tyres in the right window here.

“So everything makes a difference. It was a very bad on the out lap and then I had a bit of traffic also in my lap, and all of that made a huge difference.

“But it made a much bigger difference than what I thought, because even though I knew there was a bit more time coming, I did not expect to gain eight-tenths.”

Asked if he made any setup changes to the car prior to the session, Leclerc responded: “No. Actually, this weekend, I did not change the car that much!”

Leclerc also lined up on pole last weekend in the United States but instantly relinquished the lead away from the line, eventually slumping to sixth prior to being disqualified.

Although the extensive run down to Turn 1 at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez provides opportunities to those behind, Leclerc is confident he can retain first place.

“It’s a very difficult race here,” he acknowledged. “Everything can happen, especially with the cooling. Whichever car is behind will do a bit more management, so that can play in our favour.

“But for that we need to do a good start. And starting first here, it’s always tricky to keep that position into the first corner, but we’ve had pretty good starts this year.

“So I’m confident we can keep that first place into Turn 1 and then we’ll try and do our best race.”

Leclerc believes that Max Verstappen, who will start third, will provide the main challenge to his attempts at securing a first F1 race victory since July last year.

“I mean, this year, clearly, Max has been extremely strong on the race pace,” he noted. “So at the moment it’s Max [that is the favourite for the win].

“We still have a lot of work to do as a team, I think, to match them with our race pace.”

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