MONACO (AFP, REUTERS) – Charles Leclerc will start on pole for his home Monaco Grand Prix after setting the fastest time in qualifying on Saturday (May 22) despite crunching his Ferrari into a wall which could yet lead to a penalty removing him from the front of the grid.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will set off alongside the locally-born Leclerc on Sunday in the most iconic of all Formula One venues with world champion Lewis Hamilton down in unfamiliar territory on the fourth row.
Qualifying was red-flagged towards the end of Q3 after Leclerc’s smash, depriving the likes of Hamilton and Verstappen a chance to topple the man from Monaco’s time of 1min 10.346sec with a flying lap.
Leclerc may have learned to swim in the pool adjacent to the chicane where he crashed but his record on the streets he grew up in is pointless.
He admitted he was “worried” about a penalty for a change of gearbox but should take heart from this clear signal that his legendary F1 team has hauled itself out of a worrying slump.
Ferrari raised his hopes some hours later by saying an initial inspection had “not revealed any serious damage”. Further checks will be carried out on Sunday, however.
“It’s a shame to finish in the wall, it doesn’t feel the same but I’m incredibly happy about my lap.
“I could feel I was quite emotional in the car – now it’s Q3, now it’s time to put everything together. I managed to do so and I’m incredibly happy.”
With his teammate Carlos Sainz on the second row alongside the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas after posting the fourth quickest time Ferrari were confirming their impressive form in practice.
“It’s tomorrow that we score points but we are incredibly surprised to be on pole and fourth place for the race tomorrow,” added Leclerc who has given Ferrari a real shot at their first grand prix win since 2019 after a sharp slump last season when they recorded their worst result since 1980.
Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto was as content as if his number had finally come up on the spin of a roulette wheel at the Principality’s celebrated casino.
“After our performance last year it is a huge step forward. I think the pole is a good reward for the team.
“We are worried about the gear box, but we will leave it to the engineers let them see in the next couple of hours,” he said.
Verstappen, who trails Hamilton by 14 points in the drivers’ world championship, bemoaned the premature conclusion to Q3.
“The red flag ruined the chance for pole. Nevertheless, a good weekend and we recovered well from Thursday so not too bad.”
Hamilton, who has won three of this season’s four races, said it was a case of going “back to the drawing board now”.
“There is a lack of grip, so that leaves you to overdrive the car and unfortunately it just didn’t improve,” said the seven-time world champion.
With overtaking opportunities hard to come by on Monaco’s tight and twisting circuit, Hamilton’s chances of moving up to 99 grand prix wins look compromised.
“I guess the minimum will be hopefully finish seventh, and then hope we can get higher,” he said.
One driver absent from qualifying was Mick Schumacher who had a big crash in the morning’s third practice.
The German rookie, whose father Michael was a five-time Monaco winner, was unhurt in the accident which gave his Haas team’s mechanics an impossible job to repair his extensively damaged car in the two hours before Q1 got under way.
As a result Schumacher’s first experience of the mythic race will be tainted by having to start in 20th place on Sunday’s grid.
F1 welcomes back its Mediterranean crown jewel after last year’s race was dropped from the coronavirus-disrupted season.
The presence of 7,500 fans allowed to watch the street fight is an indication that gradually a degree of normalcy is returning to the sport’s landscape.
The same could be said about Ferrari’s return to form.