Leclerc thrilled to beat both McLarens in COTA qualifying, but Sainz braced for tough race on soft tyres
Charles Leclerc managed to put his Ferrari fourth on the grid for United States Grand Prix qualifying while team mate Carlos Sainz is just one place behind in P5 – but the pair came away from the Saturday session with markedly different expectations for Sunday's race.
Leclerc was fifth-fastest in qualifying but, as Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas took P4 and has a five-place grid penalty, the Monegasque driver will be promoted a place with Sainz up to fifth on the grid having qualified sixth. Leclerc was most thrilled that he managed to outqualify the McLarens, given how difficult he said he's found this weekend so far.
"Very happy with today and with the whole weekend to be honest," he began. "But especially with today, because, personally, it hasn’t been easy today. In FP3, the first run went very, very well, and then in the second run of FP3 we tried something and I lost completely the confidence in the car and I was struggling a lot with the rear end of the car.
"So in Q1, we decided to do a bit of a different plan, do it going for a bit more laps than usual, and that helped me gain the confidence back in the car.
"And then we went into Q2, did that great lap with the medium in the first run, which helped us to go into Q3 with those medium tyres – and Q3 went very well so very happy that both of our cars have outqualified the McLarens, which was the goal today," he added.
However, there's a catch for Ferrari: Sainz starts on soft tyres having made it out of Q2 on the faster but less durable compound. The Spaniard explained why he's in a less-than-ideal predicament – and why it wasn't a "gamble" to start on softs – before revealing what he thinks his chances are in the race.
"No, no, not a gamble – just a compromised situation that we saw that we wanted to do the soft first and then beat the lap time on the medium, and then the track got a bit slower at the end of Q2," he said. "No one improved in the second run. And we had reserved the medium for the second run and normally it’s quicker but this time it was slower because the wind picked up, so we need to analyse what we could have done differently there because it obviously puts us on the back foot going into tomorrow."
So, is there an advantage awaiting Sainz as he starts the race on the faster compounds?
"For the first 10 metres, yes; after one corner, you want mediums," he replied. "There’s one positive but a lot of negatives in that sense, so a bit on the back foot going into tomorrow. but we’ll try our best and see what we can do differently."
Ferrari and McLaren are fighting it out for third in the constructors' standings with the Woking team just 7.5 points ahead of their Maranello rivals at the Circuit of The Americas.