Despite topping Q2 in a strong qualifying performance for the 21-year-old, Leclerc eventually qualified third behind Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton – although just 0.079s covered the grid’s leading three drivers.
“We are very, very close to them, it’s a shame we missed out on pole position by eight hundredths but they were quicker today,” Leclerc told Sky F1.
Team boss Mattia Binotto described Leclerc’s lap as “stupendous” on a day Sebastian Vettel struggled to sixth in the sister car.
Still, Mercedes’ front-row lockout makes the world championship leaders are favourites for victory on Sunday – unless Leclerc can take control of the race from the second row at the start.
In a repeat from Austria, Ferrari start on softer tyres than their direct competitors in a compound that should give Leclerc an initial grip advantage.
“We did an audacious choice of tyre for the start, softer than our opponents,” said the Monegasque. “I will give it everything and hopefully gain some positions at the first few corners.”
Binotto said the move “was planned in order to add in another variable” into the race.
“We are well aware this will be a long race during which tyre wear will be a factor for everyone, but our hope is that we have found the right set-up to also allow us to go well over a long stint,” he added.
And although the move almost-certainly means Leclerc will have to pit before the Mercedes and Red Bull cars, the youngster says Ferrari have faith in their decision.
“Seeing the race simulations I don’t think there’s much difference between the two tyres. I don’t think it’s night and day, to be honest,” added Leclerc. “If we can overtake them at the start, we might have a chance.”
And Pirelli have identified the soft-starting strategy as the optimum two-stopper.
What happened to Vettel?
Since Vettel claimed pole in Canada at the start of June, Leclerc has registered three consecutive qualifying ‘victories’ over his illustrious team-mate.
Vettel has qualified seventh, 10th – with car problems – and now sixth since then and was at loss to explain why this latest session did not come together.
“I just didn’t have the speed. Usually it’s pretty clear that you go faster from Q1 to Q3 without doing anything but that didn’t happen today. It’s a bit strange,” Vettel told Sky Sports.
“I didn’t have a great feel for the car and it just didn’t come.
“I think he [Charles] did a good job but, for me, I don’t have an answer now. He seems to gain everywhere.”
But Vettel does still expect to prove more competitive in the race.
“The race is never a problem. I’d rather start further up but, in the race, normally it’s fine,” he added.
“Mercs will be very quick but I believe race pace is fine, it has been fine throughout the more year more or less. It will be a tough battle with the Red Bulls.”
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