Leclerc thought podium was secured after confusing Red Bull drivers

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Charles Leclerc believed he was heading towards a podium finish in the Japanese Grand Prix after confusing the slow-moving Red Bull of Sergio Perez with the sister car of Max Verstappen.

There was nothing and nothing gained for Leclerc in Sunday's race at Suzuka where the Ferrari driver started fourth and concluded his day in the same position.

But in the closing stages of the race, following Red Bull's decision to send Perez back out onto the track to serve a five-second penalty to prevent him from carrying the sanction over to the next round in Qatar, Leclerc overtook the Mexican, who at that point was nothing more than a distant backmarker.

As he sped by, and believing Perez had retired much earlier in the race, Leclerc was convinced that a bout of misfortune had hit Verstappen, the leader of the race.

"I thought he [Verstappen] wasn't in the race anymore," Leclerc recounted. "So I thought I was getting a podium and on the last lap I actually looked at the [pit] board and I was P4!"

Leclerc admitted that his race had pretty much unfolded according to plan, while teammate Carlos Sainz's own efforts landed him in sixth place at the checkered flag.

"Max of course, we expected him to be strong," he said. "We expected Checo also, but I don’t know what happened for him and the two McLarens, too.

"So there were no surprises. It was all as expected, but it was the maximum we could do today."


While Verstappen was out of reach once again, Leclerc reckoned that McLaren had built its edge in the race thanks to lower degradation and better tyre management, a chronic weakness impacting the Scuderia's SF-23 this season, although it's one that has been slightly mitigated by the Italian outfit lately.

"The pace today wasn't as strong as McLaren, they were super strong," explained Leclerc.

"They also had very low tyre management, but I think another weekend like this is good in a way because it confirms exactly what we understood in the last few races.

"Sector one is definitely one of our main weaknesses that should be compared to McLaren, that's where most of the time is lost. We will be working on that for the rest of the season."

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