Is Leclerc the fastest driver in F1?

    • Joined ESPN in 2009
    • An FIA accredited F1 journalist since 2011

    • Previously worked in rugby union and British Superbikes
    • History graduate from Reading University
    • Joined ESPNF1 in February 2014

If Charles Leclerc had converted all of his pole positions into victories in 2022, we’d be talking about him as the clear favourite for the title.

In eight qualifying sessions this year, he has been fastest in six (including on Saturday in Baku), while he has taken second place in the other two (behind Sergio Perez in Saudi Arabia and Max Verstappen at Imola).

Of course, the fact Leclerc’s Ferrari is so fast over one lap but more evenly matched with the Red Bulls in the race is one of the reasons this year’s world championship is so open and exciting. Ferrari’s treatment of its tyres means it can easily get them up to temperature over a single lap, but managing them over a race distance is not always so straightforward and has been a consistent weakness for Leclerc compared to championship leader Verstappen.

But putting the idiosyncrasies of each car’s tyre management to one side, Leclerc is undoubtedly making a claim for the title of F1’s fastest driver over a single lap. His Baku pole position lap was the latest example of his pinpoint precision and masterful speed, as he came close to the barriers on the apex and exit of almost every corner without once looking out of control.

In a session that had looked closely matched between the four drivers of the top two teams throughout Q1, Q2 and the first run in Q3, Leclerc found nearly 0.3s over his nearest rival when it mattered, and did so without the advantage of a slipstream on Baku’s long pit straight. The advantage he held was mainly in the tighter second sector of the track, with Leclerc’s best attempt at threading his Ferrari between the castle walls giving him a 0.327s advantage over second-place Perez in that sector alone. Red Bull gained lap time back on the straights, where the lower-drag setup of the RB18 came into its own, but by the time his Ferrari entered the pit straight, Leclerc had time in hand after his intense flirting with the walls earlier in the lap.

A remarkable lap in a front-running car is always easier to identify than an equally impressive lap in a midfield or backmarker car, and there are a number of drivers who often get the most from their machinery in the same way Leclerc did on Saturday only to line up midway down the grid. George Russell, for example, would also be a candidate for the best qualifier in F1 after outperforming the man with the most pole positions in F1 history, Lewis Hamilton, at the past three events and hauling his Mercedes up to fifth on Saturday.

But Leclerc’s total dominance this year of teammate Carlos Sainz, who is anything but slow, and his ability to extract the fastest laps consistently while dealing with the pressure of a title fight, means he can quite legitimately lay claim to the title of F1’s best qualifier this year. All he needs to do now is convert that one-lap pace into wins on Sunday.

— Laurence Edmondson

Did car issue cost Perez pole?

There was some confusion at Red Bull ahead of the final timed laps of qualifying. While Max Verstappen went out as scheduled, he soon noticed he had gone out before teammate Sergio Perez.

Verstappen enquired as to why, as he was due to get a “tow” from Perez on his lap — the affect of the slipstream down Baku’s long straight is huge. Perez’s car was delayed in the garage as the team struggled to fire it up, which team boss Christian Horner later explained as an issue with fueling the car.

Perez had been due to give Verstappen the tow, but had he been out in sync with other drivers, Red Bull had also planned for him to benefit from the tow of another car. As it turned out, Perez had to do his lap out of sync and in clean air, likely costing him a small chunk of lap time.

Perez’s final gap to Leclerc was 0.282s.

“I think, certainly we could have been a lot closer,” Perez said of the tow, although he admitted Leclerc might have been out of reach anyway.

“It seems whenever Ferrari puts it all together, they are a a good step forwards in qualifying. We lost a few tenths, but maybe not the three tenths we needed to be on pole.

“It wasn’t ideal because we were out of sync on my lap.”

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner downplayed the suggestion that the issue cost the team the pole.

“With a tow it would have been close, but we still wouldn’t have had the pace to nail Charles,” he said. “[Ferrari] just had the upper hand on a single lap.”

Pole position or not, Perez outperformed Verstappen once again on Saturday. He cut the championship gap to 15 points by winning the Monaco Grand Prix last time out, and if he finishes ahead of Verstappen again Sunday, he will make what is a fascinating teammate dynamic even more complicated for Red Bull.

— Nate Saunders

Have Mercedes made one step forward and two steps back?

At the Spanish Grand Prix three weeks ago, it looked like Mercedes had slashed the gap to Ferrari and Red Bull and was about to put Lewis Hamilton and George Russell in contention for victories at the coming races. But just two bumpy street circuits later, and the fastest of the two silver cars found itself in a fight with Red Bull’s junior team AlphaTauri for fifth on the grid on Saturday while being a whopping 1.3s off pole position — the biggest dry-weather qualifying margin Mercedes has had to the front this season.

So was the performance in Spain simply a false dawn?

Not exactly. While progress was made at the Spanish Grand Prix, it came on a purpose-built circuit with a smooth track surface and a sequence of mainly high- and medium-speed corners. Over the bumpy street circuits of Monaco and Baku, Mercedes has uncovered ride issues that were not apparent in Spain as well as a return of the dreaded bouncing — or “porpoising” — on the high-speed straights in Baku.

The bouncing, which haemorrhaged performance from the Mercedes at the opening five rounds of the year, is doubly frustrating for the team, as it not only shows that the car is still on a knife edge in terms of curing the issue, but also that the time devoted to solving the bouncing has not been as well spent as its engineers had hoped. For every hour the team’s factory has worked on solving the bouncing, it has lost as much time developing the intended performance upgrades it had planned to improve the baseline performance of the car. Meanwhile, rivals Red Bull and Ferrari have pushed on with their own developments and extended the gap at the front, meaning the return of the bouncing in Baku has dropped Mercedes even further off the pace.

“We made a really good step in Barcelona,” insisted team boss Toto Wolff on Saturday evening. “On a circuit that has a smooth surface, less bumps, we’re fine.

“We had a good car and we were able to extract the performance in the race, but in quali we were lacking a bit. It’s easy to explain because we’ve had now two months where we have been trying to solve the porpoising and not being able to add baseline performance and that bites us a bit.

“For us, we understand what’s going on. We understand what we need to do and it means, in a way … Montreal (the next race) is a really good race for us next week because Montreal is bouncing, it is high-kerb riding. After Montreal, I expect to have a better view.”

But if the team really understands what’s going on, why can’t it bring a fix?

“I think we know what the root cause of our problem is, but we don’t have the answers yet of what the best solution will be,” Wolff said. “And this is what we are experimenting with at the moment.

“I still think there is a short-term fix, which is making us much more competitive, but it might not explain everything. I’d like to get the car in the right position for the second half of the year and also for next year. So the learning is more key than short-term optimisation for a weekend.”

— Laurence Edmondson

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