Leclerc engages “jet mode” to take pole in Sochi: 2019 F1 Russian Grand Prix qualifying


Another dominating qualifying session saw Charles Leclerc take his fourth consecutive pole position for the 2019 F1 Russian Grand Prix

Charles Leclerc gives the thumbs up after securing pole position for the 2019 Russian Grand prix

Photo: Motorsport Images

Charles Leclerc is starting to look very special. Always self-critical, he arrived in Sochi apologetic about some of his radio communications in Singapore, where he clearly felt he’d been robbed when an earlier pit stop sprung Sebastian Vettel ahead.

“Some of my reaction was over what it should be,” he stated, “The team did the right thing. I still have a lot to learn and to improve.”

Really? Here was a guy who had won the last two races, set a hugely impressive pole, driven to instruction, and seen a deserved hat-trick go down the toilet. Many a driver would have gone ballistic. Imagine Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher

“That party mode that people used to say we had… Well, Ferrari seems to have gone to another level. They have jet mode!”

Leclerc wasn’t elaborating on why Ferrari had elected not to switch them back around. You might surmise that team principal Mattia Binotto didn’t see the mileage in it: no difference in the constructors’ championship; it would have publicly humiliated Vettel and heaped more pressure upon him; Ferrari didn’t appreciate the power of the undercut and had not intended to undercut Leclerc; neither man is in the championship fight and so it didn’t really matter.

And, just maybe, it might have been a wagged finger in Leclerc’s direction after he didn’t play ball in Monza qualifying.  

But here we are at Sochi, a track where the flat-out section out of Turn 18 through to the braking area for Turn Two (Turn One being a kink) is full-throttle and Ferrari straightline speed territory just as much as the front straight at Baku, La Source to Les Combes at Spa or Parabolica to Turn One at Monza.

Sure enough, the Ferrari was 0.35sec quicker than the next fastest car in sector one – Max Verstappen’s Red Bull-Honda – but that did not explain how Leclerc had managed to outqualify Vettel for the ninth consecutive race, by a massive 0.43sec! Marina Bay was supposed to be the circuit where the driver is a differentiator – and Leclerc was – but not Sochi.

Charles Leclerc shales hands with Sebastian Vettel after outqualifying him by 0.43sec at the 2019 Russian Grand Prix

Leclerc outqualified Vettel for the ninth consecutive race Photo: Motorsport Images

A lot was made of four poles in a row but that in itself is nothing unheard of: the record is eight, by Senna. Hamilton managed seven in 2015, and Nico Rosberg six that same year. But it’s the first time that a Ferrari driver has managed four since Michael Schumacher in 2000. Already, Leclerc is being spoken of in those terms even if it’s a comparison he’s not comfortable engaging with at this nascent stage of his career. But if Leclerc is trying to make a pitch to be the Ferrari No1, then he is doing so very effectively.

Don’t miss full race analysis from Mark Hughes: sign up to the F1 newsletter

Vettel had a scrappy start to qualifying as both Ferraris ran the medium rather than soft Pirelli tyre in Q1. Leclerc went comfortably through with a lap good enough for fifth, while Vettel made a mistake at the heavy-brake Turn 13 on his first attempt. Frustratingly, he had to abort his next two laps when there was a yellow flag for a spun Robert Kubica and then a red when Alex Albon backed his Red Bull into the tyres.

After swapping to a set of softs after the interruption to clear Q1, Vettel said that the Ferrari felt okay by Q3 and he looked a bit mystified by the chasm to Leclerc. He lost a tenth in the first sector, two more in sector two and then just over a tenth in the final sector where, more often than not, it’s a question of having some tyre performance left. Leclerc is superb on the brakes and there are heavy stops involved at Turn Two and Turn 13.

Leclerc felt that tyre performance had deserted him in S3 but skilfully managed the time loss when the rear stepped out on him in Turns 16/17/18. To such an extent that only a fantastic lap from Lewis Hamilton contained a better sector three – by almost a quarter of a second.

Lewis Hamilton during qualifying for the 2019 Russian Grand Prix

Hamilton had no answer for Leclerc’s pole lap Photo: Motorsport Images

“That party mode that people used to say we had,” Hamilton smiled. “Well, Ferrari seems to have gone to another level. They have jet mode! I honestly didn’t expect we could get on the front row, which is why we had to try something and went for the medium tyres.”

It must have rung Lewis’s bell to produce a truly great lap, look at the timing screen and see a four-tenths deficit. It was a superb effort to beat Vettel, and it can’t have been too comfortable for Seb to digest either – clearly a case of driver making the difference.

Ironically, it may actually have done Vettel a favour. Sochi, along with Mexico, has an abnormally long run to the first corner, around 800m, which represents 10sec of full-throttle running before drivers go hard on the brakes for Turn Two. Engineers will tell you that if the P3 driver picks up an optimal tow and doesn’t have to get out of the throttle, it translates into an 8-9m advantage over the pole man by the braking area.

Valtteri Bottas illustrated that perfectly when he went past both Ferraris from P3 to lead the first lap in 2017.

In 2017 Ferraris started 1-2, but Bottas was ahead by the end of the straight Photo: Motorsport Images

So, with both Ferraris and Hamilton involved, take cover at Turn One tomorrow afternoon! A Maranello diplomatic incident to be avoided?

Bottas, at the scene of his first win in that ’17 race, was not in the game this time, fully a second behind Leclerc’s pole. And, oddly, it was the final sector, through which he’s previously excelled here, where he struggled.

“Turn 13 was tricky for me all the time,” he explained. “Pretty much every lap I’d get a rear snap, the tyres would overheat and that was it for the rest of sector three, and I don’t really understand why. But, even if we’d got onto the front row I think the Ferraris would get us at the start.”

His lap was fifth quickest but he will start fourth after one of the hated five-place grid penalties is applied to Max Verstappen.

Related content

Max’s Q3 best was six-tenths shy of Leclerc and he had looked like being a bigger threat than that on the opening day.

“We’re losing more than a second to the Ferraris on the combined straights,” he lamented. “I’d been quicker than them in sector three but today there was more wind and I had more oversteer there. Splitting the Mercs was the best that we could do.”

Japan is next on the schedule and Honda always builds a Suzuka special. Latest Spec 4 Hondas were therefore in the back of both Red Bulls and both Toro Rossos to take a hit here and get enough engines into the pool for the rest of the year, as well as ensuring fresh units in Japan.

Daniil Kvyat's helmet for the 2019 Russian Grand Prix, which he was banned from wearing

Kvyat’s bespoke helmet was left on the shelf Photo: Motorsport Images

It meant five-place penalties for Verstappen, Albon and Pierre Gasly, and a back-of-the-grid start for Kvyat, the man who had his own grandstand and who most of the crowd had come to cheer. Marvellous…

And, just to add insult to Daniil’s injury, he’d had a special helmet prepared for his home race, seemingly unaware of the relatively new rule banning multiple helmet changes. The new lid had to stay in the pits…

Carlos Sainz was not in the best of moods on Friday night. McLaren hadn’t found a balance he could get on with, his ‘push’ laps in FP2 had been ruined by traffic and he was four tenths adrift of Lando Norris, who himself wasn’t that happy with his car. It looked as if McLaren was going to struggle versus arch fourth place rivals Renault.

If you’d offered Sainz ‘best of the rest’ he’d have snapped your arm off, but that’s how it worked out, Carlos outqualifying Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault by 0.06sec.

“We went in the right direction and congrats to my engineer Tom Stallard because yesterday we were absolutely nowhere. I’m proud after that quali lap,” he said.

It’s good to see the genuine friendship and competitiveness between two talents like Sainz and Norris; Lando clearly didn’t begrudge Sainz his hot lap as he himself went round just 0.02sec shy of Hülkenberg. They will start fifth and seventh after Verstappen takes his hit.

Haas had reverted to a ‘Melbourne and a bit’ specification, which Romain Grosjean managed to put into the top 10, a tenth and a half quicker than Daniel Ricciardo, who had to use one more set of softs than team mate Hülkenberg to clear Q1 and paid the price with just the one new tyre run in Q3.

The midfield battle proved insanely close, with Q2 eliminees Gasly, Sergio Perez, Antonio Giovinazzi and Kevin Magnussen all blanketed by 0.13sec!

Soft Pirelli F1 tyres at Sochi for the 2019 Russian Grand Prix

Ferrari will start on soft tyres, but Mercedes will use mediums Photo: Motorsport Images

It looks like Ferrari’s to lose but there might yet be a curveball.

“Mercedes running the medium in Q2 surprised us,” admitted Binotto. “The soft has a grip advantage and so we need to understand why…”

Ostensibly it looks as if Mercedes believed it was going to be impossible to beat the Ferraris into Turn One given the red cars’ straightline speed and that they have rolled the dice and gone a different route. Running the harder tyre at the start, they will go deeper into the race before pitting and so are likely to have track position at the front of the field when the Ferraris stop. Hamilton’s race pace on Friday was strong and Mercedes may be able to buy him some time by having Bottas back up the Ferraris for a time after their stops.

But realistically, it’s probably easier to swim against a tsunami than to keep a fresh-tyred Ferrari behind you at Sochi. Over the past five races Ferrari has outscored Mercedes 151 points to 120.

The drivers’ haul looks like this:

  • Leclerc, 80
  • Hamilton, 73
  • Vettel, 71
  • Verstappen, 64
  • Bottas, 47

You can see that trend continuing.

See full qualifying results below



Russian Grand Prix qualifying results and starting grid

Position Driver Team Time
1 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1min 31.628sec
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1min 32.030sec
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1min 32.053sec
4 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1min 32.632sec
5 Carlos Sainz McLaren 1min 33.222sec
6 Nico Hülkenberg Renault 1min 33.289sec
7 Lando Norris McLaren 1min 33.301sec
8 Romain Grosjean Haas 1min 33.517sec
9 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1min 32.310sec*
10 Daniel Ricciardo Renault 1min 33.661sec
11 Sergio Perez Racing Point 1min 33.958sec
12 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 1min 34.037sec
13 Kevin Magnussen Haas 1min 34.082sec
14 Lance Stroll Racing Point 1min 34.233sec
15 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo 1min 34.840sec
16 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso 1min 33.950sec*
17 George Russell Williams 1min 35.356sec
18 Alexander Albon Red Bull 1min 39.197sec*
19 Robert Kubica Williams 1min 36.474sec**
20 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso No time set**

*Five-place grid penalty for using additional power unit elements
**Back-of-grid start for multiple power unit element changes


You may also like