Charles Leclerc says that excessive fuel-saving measures during the closing stages of the Belgian Grand Prix threatened his podium finish.

The Ferrari driver inherited pole position courtesy of a five-place grid drop for Max Verstappen but his grip on first place didn’t even last a lap as Sergio Perez utilised the slipstream down the Kemmel Straight to catapult into an early race lead.

Although Verstappen also came through later in the opening stint, Leclerc managed to resist Lewis Hamilton’s advances to score Ferrari’s third podium of the year.

Leclerc was pleased to round out a tough first half of the season with a top-three finish – but he admits that Ferrari still has a lot of work to do to catch Red Bull.

“This was the best we could achieve today, no doubt,” Leclerc said after finishing 32s adrift of Verstappen.

“So yeah, you always hope to try to win the race, but on the other hand, realistically, we knew that both of the Red Bulls would be much quicker, and… yeah… but our target was to maximise the points with the package we had and honestly, I don’t think we could have done anything better today.”

He added: “When you look at the Red Bull, we still have a lot of work to do, especially in terms of race pace, because degradation and everything they are quite far ahead still.

With the Red Bulls proving untouchable in race trim again, the battle for the third step on the podium rostrum came down to a straight duel between Leclerc and Hamilton.

While Hamilton got close on a few occasions by pitting earlier at each round of stops, Leclerc always appeared to have the measure of the Mercedes driver.

However, Leclerc reveals that he was “told to do some fuel saving” in the dying embers, creating a harder-than-anticipated run to the end until Mercedes pursued the fastest lap.

“And this was quite big at the end of the race,” he continued regarding his fuel saving. “So there I was struggling a bit more, but the pace was there to keep Lewis behind.

“And then I knew that he was going to pit for the fastest lap, which made my life a little bit easier.” 

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari celebrates his third position on the podium. 30.07.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 13, Belgian Grand Prix, Spa Francorchamps, Belgium, Race Day.

Despite Verstappen overhauling his team-mate and swiftly clearing away into the distance, Leclerc concedes he thought at one stage that getting back past Perez was a remote possibility in the final laps.

Asked how much having to conserve fuel compromised his pace, Leclerc replied: “A bit too much. But on the other hand, when Checo started to push again for a few laps at the end, I could not match that, so I think they also had a bit of margin.

“But yeah, at one point I was seeing that I was doing the same lap times as Checo, I didn’t know how much he was saving but I knew how much I was saving, so I thought, ‘OK, maybe we can get second place – but then very quickly I understood that he was just saving.”

After a promising race day display in Austria earlier this month, Ferrari suffered slumps in performance in the following two rounds at the British and Hungarian Grands Prix.

The Scuderia’s struggles with tyre degradation particularly stymied its prospects in those two races, but Leclerc was able to run a conventional strategy at Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday.

Questioned on how effectively Ferrari was able to manage the tyres in Belgium, Leclerc issued: “It was good. It was good.

“Basically, we had to react to what Lewis was doing behind, which then the Red Bull had to react to us a lap later. So that’s why we were all on the same strategy, because everybody was reacting to somebody else’s strategy.

“So, yeah, our strategy was based on Lewis and trying to keep him behind during the whole race. He had a good pace but I felt we had him under control.”

Leclerc’s third podium of 2023 sees him head into the summer shutdown in fifth place in the Drivers’ Championship, having leapfrogged George Russell and team-mate Carlos Sainz, who retired from the race after opening lap contact with Oscar Piastri.

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