Charles Leclerc produces immense lap to claim pole at Spanish Grand Prix

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Manu Fernández/AP</span>
Photograph: Manu Fernández/AP

Demonstrating exemplary control under pressure Charles Leclerc delivered with a mighty lap for pole at Spanish Grand Prix. Behind him under an equally intense weight of expectation that has been building inexorably race by race this season, Mercedes finally made their first steps to joining the championship fight as George Russell and Lewis Hamilton put in their best combined qualifying of the season.

Ferrari’s Leclerc took the top spot at the Circuit De Barcelona-Catalunya in a highly competitive session and did so with just one lap after he pushed too hard on his first run and spun out. “I tried to do too much and lost it,” he said matter of factly of the moment that could have cost him pole until he regrouped and delivered with a clinical piece of execution, beating Red Bull’s Max Verstappen into second.

Related: Red Bull fume over ‘clone’ Aston Martin while Alonso rages at F1 stewards

Mercedes too showed their grit with a definite improvement after a woeful start to the season with Russell and Hamilton taking fourth and sixth. Carlos Sainz was in third for Ferrari with Sergio Pérez in fifth for Red Bull.

The two Mercedes drivers were more than six-tenths back but given their season thus far can see it as a turning point and are optimistic for Sunday.

This meeting was crunch time for the team, with principal Toto Wolff having said it would be decisive in their analysis of whether they would pursue their current design or admit they had got it wrong. They will, it seems, be sticking to their guns. Their performance welcomed as vindication of their W13 car and encouragement that there is more to come. Resolving its issues with porpoising – violent bouncing due to a downforce stall – was key to bringing the handling and pace up to speed and they had successfully almost eliminated it. Barcelona augurs well for a further resurgence.

Hamilton acknowledged the strides the team had made. “Yesterday was the best race pace that we have had,” he said. “If we can be racing against the Ferraris that would be amazing. The team have done such a great job. We don’t have bouncing in a straight line which is a huge improvement for us and the car has generally been nicer this weekend.”

Related: Carlos Sainz worried over health of F1 drivers due to bouncing on track

The swathe of upgrades brought to the car here have enabled Hamilton and Russell to push competitively. Mercedes were not expecting to overcome their issues in one fell swoop but are now making the progress they have been focussing on with furious work at the factory. Overcoming the porpoising was key in allowing the team to now pursue pure pace, believed Wolff. “As soon as we can pick up the regular development, as soon as we understand the tyres better now the bouncing is gone, I think we will be catching up,” he said.

In what was a fascinating session, the tensest since the opening round in Bahrain, Verstappen set the pace with his first hot lap in Q3, with a time of 1minute 19.073seconds. He had to push given the ferocity of the fight at the front but nailed the lap, almost four tenths clear of Sainz in second. Leclerc, in position to challenge, spun at the chicane.

On the second runs the Monegasque threw his car at the track, quick through both the second and third sectors, he bettered Verstappen, with a 1min 18.750sec, taking the top spot just as Verstappen told his team he had lost power and could not improve. The Dutchman had done enough to ensure second but Red Bull will be concerned once more over reliability issues.

A fierce fight can be expected on Sunday, Mercedes hope to join the party but Leclerc has the whip hand. On top form, he is in the best possible position to extend his formidable 19-point championship lead over Verstappen.

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Valtteri Bottas was in seventh for Alfa Romeo, Kevin Magnussen and Mick Schumacher in eighth and 10th for Haas with Daniel Ricciardo in ninth for McLaren. Lando Norris was in 11th for McLaren and Esteban Ocon in 12th for Alpine. Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly in 13th and 14th for AlphaTauri, with Guanyu Zhou in 15th for Alfa Romeo. Sebastian Vettel was in 16th for Aston Martin and his teammate Lance Stroll in 18th, with Fernando Alonso in 17th for Alpine. Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi were in 19th and 20th for Williams.

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