Mercedes and Red Bull were considered heavy favourites for the weekend due to previous form on twistier, high-downforce circuits, but Leclerc shocked Ferrari’s rivals by setting a searing pace around the Marina Bay streets on Saturday, with Lewis Hamilton two-tenths off in second.
It was, without doubt, one of the most surprising results of the season.
Leclerc and Ferrari – while looking for a third successive F1 2019 victory – had only previously won on tracks with long straights which favoured engine power. In Hungary, meanwhile, the last Grand Prix with similar characteristics to Singapore, Leclerc was half a second off pole and more than a minute off the pace in the race.
“It feels amazing and I think it’s the most unexpected [pole],” said Leclerc, who now has more poles than any F1 2019 driver with five.
“Unexpected things always feel the best. It definitely feels crazy.”
Speaking to Sky F1’s Anthony Davidson in a SkyPad special, the in-form Monegasque added: “Every pole feels amazing but especially here, nobody expected it. Even us, we did not expect to be on pole today.”
So how did Ferrari do it?
Although Ferrari arrived in Marina Bay with aerodynamic upgrades – mainly focusing on the front wing and nose of the car – Leclerc was understandably surprised by the immediate leap in performance.
Ferrari have failed to deliver results with previous updates this season, while the team finished Friday practice the best part of a second slower than Mercedes and Red Bull. They were very much underdogs.
But the car came alive on Saturday, with Leclerc fastest in final practice, while Vettel then looked favourite for pole before being pipped by his team-mate, and Mercedes’ Hamilton, after making a mess of his final Q3 lap.
In the end, Ferrari will be disappointed they didn’t lock-out the front row – which nobody would have predicted on Saturday morning.
“We knew that we brought here a new aero package in the right direction,” stated team boss Mattia Binotto to Sky F1. “It was even better than we hoped.”
It wasn’t just in the power-friendly first sector where Ferrari were flourishing, either, with Toto Wolff claiming: “They are gaining a few tenths on the straights, but they are also very quick in the corners. It’s just quicker everywhere.”
According to Binotto, Ferrari are starting to solve their “weaknesses”.
“I think it is important to know that we are developing the car in the right direction because that will be useful as well for next year,” he added.
“After the wins in Spa and Monza certainly there is a big boost in the team, and we were coming here at least hoping to do something special. I think today, at least, we did that.
“I think it is important that we have identified the weaknesses and we are addressing them. I still believe that the others are very strong and we have to close the gap in some areas, but at least we are in a good way.”
And what does it mean for F1 2019?
No points are handed out on a Saturday and Ferrari will now be desperate to back up their qualifying with a third straight F1 2019 victory in Sunday’s race.
But their performance under the lights at least suggests that the team can now be competitive at every track, rather than just those that play into their mighty engine’s hands.
“It’s a game-changing qualifying,” said Sky F1’s Simon Lazenby. “That really tells you they’re going to be a threat from here on in.”
Mercedes only defeats so far this season have come in Austria when they struggled in the heat, in Germany when rain led to a crazy race, and in Belgium and Italy where Ferrari’s straight-line speed prevailed.
After Sunday’s race, live from 1.10pm on Sky Sports F1 with coverage starting at 11.30am, there are six events remaining in the season.
“That was an amazing performance,” added Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion. “Ferrari just completely surprised everyone. There was no indication that this was coming, this was not a track that suited them but their strength is now not only in the power that they deliver, but also they must have a very good chassis and aero package.
“You would say that Ferrari would go well at certain tracks like Monza and Spa, but we didn’t expect it here in Singapore, a slower, twistier track, usually the domain of Red Bull and Mercedes.”
Paul Di Resta agreed: “Ferrari, to come up with that package… I wouldn’t have even expected them to be in the same second as Red Bull and Mercedes around here.
“They’re going to mean business when we get to the other tracks. When you get to Sochi next time out with the big long straights, all these things. They’ve revitalised that team.”
The Sky F1 pundits also reserved praise for Leclerc, who is fast-becoming an F1 star.
“Charles Leclerc: Now I’m really impressed – that is outstanding,” said Martin Brundle after Leclerc’s stunning final qualifying lap.
“The track they were supposed to struggle on, and he’s smashed it. What a lap.”
Hill continued: “Vettel was unlucky he didn’t get it together on the last run, he put up a good fight but yet again he’s going to have to play second fiddle to Charles – who has stolen the show.”