When the last minute of qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix was running, Charles Leclerc had actually made it, he was the fastest over the 3.337-kilometer route. And that in a race in which a good starting position is particularly important. But Ferrari’s joy was short-lived. This hunt for times was extraordinarily exciting, the pole position changed happily from one to the other on Saturday, in the meantime even Esteban Ocon in the Alpine – twelfth in the overall standings – had surprisingly led the ranking.
Half a minute after Leclerc’s clock stopped, he was beaten by Fernando Alonso by 0.022 seconds. Great cheers now at Aston Martin. It would have been Alonso’s first pole since 2012. But Max Verstappen wasn’t done yet. And once again, the world championship leader and defending champion in his Red Bull proved how ripped off and pressure-resistant he is: the Dutchman drove more slowly in the first sections of the route, and then actually moved his car still to steer faster. He beat Alonso by 84 thousandths to give him his first pole position in Monaco for Sunday (3pm, Sky), the 23rd of his career.
“We knew we had to fight a bit,” said Verstappen. “You have to risk everything in qualifying.” Ocon finished fourth ahead of Carlos Sainz in the second Ferrari. Haas driver Nico Hülkenberg, the only German in the field, had to settle for 18th place.
Leclerc was saddened in third. Last year it was much easier to drive consistently. “I’m having a hard time with the car, but in qualifying it was a bit livelier, I felt a little more comfortable,” he said, encouraging himself: “I don’t know what the weather forecast is – anything is possible.” But this narrow street circuit is not suitable for overtaking. There is a good chance that two series will continue on the Côte d’Azur. Those from Red Bull who have won five out of five races this season. And those of Leclerc.
He was born in Monte Carlo, grew up and lives here. “I know this city by heart wherever I go on the track,” said the 25-year-old. “I have friends who live just above the track and can watch the race from their apartments.” However, the local knowledge of Leclerc has never brought anything in terms of results in the end. It looks like he’s cursed at his home race. Whether in Formula 2 or Formula 1: Leclerc either retired, had an accident, technical problems or, that was last year, ended up fourth from pole position after a chaotic pit stop strategy. “I don’t really believe in luck,” he said now. “But that’s true, if you look at the balance sheet, it wasn’t always easy on race day.”
“Look at my head, that’s crazy,” says Leclerc in view of his restless car
In principle, Monaco, with its slow corners and lack of long high-speed sections, could offer Ferrari and Leclerc an opportunity for a sense of achievement in what has been a sobering season so far. In order for the turnaround to finally succeed after years without a title, even the top personnel had been changed. Team boss Mattia Binotto had to go in November, even though things had gone up after the disastrous sixth place in the constructors’ championship in 2020 – but not far enough. In 2022, Leclerc and Carlos Sainz initially had the fastest company car. But then too many glitches and mistakes followed – and finally a new boss with Fred Vasseur.
The Frenchman, previously in charge of the Alfa Romeo team, stated that it wasn’t good enough for Ferrari to finish second. But after five races, the Scuderia is lagging behind in fourth place with just 78 points. The dominant Red Bull have already collected 224 points, Aston Martin behind them 102, the third-placed Mercedes 96. Sainz is fifth among the drivers, Leclerc only seventh. His best result was third place in Baku, where he started from the front parking bay for the sprint and main races. But how much consolation can a strong qualifying and podium be for one who switched to Ferrari in 2019 to clinch the first world title since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007 and is struggling to live up to the high expectations?
Most recently, Leclerc won in Austria in July last year, he finished that season in second place, 146 points behind world champion Max Verstappen. Leclerc is fast, but he makes mistakes – and his car is weak. That costs trust and that in turn takes time. The engineers have already given the SF-23 a new underbody. In Monaco, however, the car was still very restless, it “jumped around,” as Leclerc put it. Sometimes he hardly saw the road: “When we look at the on-board cameras of the different cars, look at my head, it’s crazy.”
Major upgrades are to follow at the upcoming race in Barcelona after the home Grand Prix in Emilia Romagna was canceled last week due to severe storms and Monte Carlo, with its special track layout, is less suitable for the introduction of comprehensive changes. So on Sunday Leclerc has to try to find an ideal set-up with what he has available – and hope for a race that he will benefit from. Leclerc was asked whether he would do a rain dance: “No, no, no, I’m not that desperate either,” he said. “If it stays dry and we can stay on the podium it would be a good weekend given the difficulties we’ve had.”
But Charles Leclerc didn’t know then that the sports commissioners would put him back three starting places. They found three hours after the end of qualifying that he had obstructed Lando Norris (McLaren) in the final round.