Leclerc heads Ferrari one-two as Williams surprises in Las Vegas
By Mat Coch
Saturday 18th November, 2023 - 8:19pm
Charles Leclerc has headed a Ferrari one-two in qualifying for the Las Vegas Grand Prix while Williams sprung a surprise.
Leclerc was rapid throughout the session to lock himself onto pole, while second-best Carlos Sainz will drop to 12th following a 10-place grid penalty.
That will see Max Verstappen promoted to the front row in his place, while Williams will have Alex Albon fifth on the grid for Saturday night’s race, one spot up from Logan Sargeant.
McLaren was less fortunate, with Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris both falling out of the three-part session at the first hurdle.
There was no great stampede as the session began with track evolution expected to bring a dramatic improvement later in proceedings.
However, teams also weighed up the chances of a late yellow or even red flag and the importance that put on an early banker lap.
Sergio Perez had been rapid in practice but took that cautious approach, clocking a 1:35.323s to briefly sit fastest.
Ferrari had adopted the same approach with Leclerc, the Monegasque going 0.425s faster.
Verstappen could not better that with his initial effort, while an impressive time by Sargeant saw the Williams driver third fastest with 10 minutes remaining in Qualifying 1 – just 0.163s off the outright pace.
Times soon began to fall sharply as grip increased and drivers began pushing on.
Leclerc lowered the benchmark time to 1:34.072s, almost two seconds faster than Kevin Magnussen had managed on the first timed lap in the session.
With five minutes remaining, George Russell finally set his first timed lap to sit fifth on a 1:34.726s.
The final flurry began with four minutes to run, Sargeant jumping back up to fourth with a 1:34.525s.
The American was quickly bundled down the order as both Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg improved for Haas, while Pierre Gasly and Valtteri Bottas also recorded laps better than the Williams driver.
Oscar Piastri found himself 17th with a minute remaining, staying there as he completed his final timed lap.
Others were improving, with Daniel Ricciardo scraping through in 15th while Norris, Esteban Ocon, Zhou Guanyu, and Yuki Tsunoda missed the cut.
Ferrari was again the pacesetter as Qualifying 2 got underway, with Leclerc managing a 1:33.966s with his first lap in the segment.
It was a time 0.3s slower than he’d managed in Qualifying 1 and was soon bettered by both Perez (by 0.001s) and Fernando Alonso.
The Aston Martin driver shot to the top of the timesheets with a 1:33.880s to head proceedings by 0.085s.
Verstappen had remained in the shed for the opening stages, emerging only with eight minutes remaining.
The Dutchman was immediately fast, recording a purple middle sector en route to the fastest time of the session to that point.
His 1:33.607s only topped the timesheets for seconds before both Ferrari drivers went faster, Leclerc with an impressive 1:32.834s.
Magnussen was similarly rapid, the Haas driver fourth best after losing time in the final sector.
Sixth with two minutes remaining, Perez returned to the pits as every other driver looked to embark on a final lap on a rapidly improving track.
The timing screens demonstrated the gains with a host of personal best microsectors that ended up pushing Perez out of qualifying.
The Red Bull driver fell to 12th while Sargeant and Albon both progressed for Williams.
Leclerc was fastest ahead of Sainz at the end of the segment with George Russell third ahead of Pierre Gasly and Verstappen.
Missing out were Lewis Hamilton, Perez, Hulkenberg, Lance Stroll, and Ricciardo.
Nine of the remaining 10 runners headed out as Qualifying 3 began, Bottas the odd man out.
The two Ferrari drivers and Verstappen were all on new tyres, everyone else on used rubber.
Neither Williams driver set a timed lap, circling back to the pits.
The opening laps saw Leclerc fastest, a 1:33.021s ahead of Sainz by 0.022s.
Verstappen was third fastest, 0.083s away from the pace, with Alonso fourth fastest.
The Spaniard had made a mistake at Turn 14, at the end of the long back straight.
Russell ran slightly out of sequence after completing two build laps, leaving him the only car on track. It resulted in a 1:33.567s, good enough for fifth.
As he crossed the line to end his lap, Bottas and the two Williams headed out.
Some 30 seconds later, the bulk of the field followed suit, though Leclerc and Verstappen waited longer still.
They finally emerged with just over three minutes remaining.
Leclerc improved with his final timed lap, a 1:32.726s to remain fastest as the chequered flag fell.
Others were still improving, though not Verstappen who pitted to remain third.
Sainz couldn’t improve nor could Alonso, while Sargeant rose to an incredible fourth.
That became fifth as Russell finished his lap, the sixth and seventh once Albon and Gasly flashed across the line.
Alonso fell to 10th while Bottas will line up eight and Magnussen ninth.