Ferrari's Leclerc romps to pole for inaugural Las Vegas GP

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari celebrates his pole position in qualifying parc ferme. 17.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Las Vegas Grand Prix, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, Qualifying Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images
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Charles Leclerc continued to be the man of the moment, taking an emphatic pole position for tomorrow's Las Vegas Grand Prix with his team mate Carlos Sainz finishing the session second quickest.

Sainz will actually start the race much further back because of his ten place grid penalty arising from the water valve cover incident in FP1, meaning that Red Bull's Max Verstappen will be promoted to the front row on the grid instead.

There were plenty of surprises in the session with both Williams drivers making it through to the top ten, Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez missing the cut at the end of Q2, and both McLarens among the cars not to make it out of Q1.

After the unfortunate mis-start the previous day, the Las Vegas GP was back on track in time for the start of qualifying at midnight on Saturday morning, with the session starting on time and temperatures slightly warmer than they had been previously. Favourites for pole Ferrari had essentially sat out final practice leaving George Russell and Mercedes to claim the honours, before an early end to FP3 due a red flag with five minutes for Alex Albon's accident.

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari SF-23 leaves the pits. 17.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Las Vegas Grand Prix, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, Qualifying Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

Q1: Leclerc dominates first round as both McLarens eliminated

Drivers were quick to get started with Logan Sargeant, Daniel Ricciardo and Pierre Gasly among those to go straight out on track. Kevin Magnussen took point for a spell until the big names rolled out with first Sergio Perez and then Charles Leclerc going top. However Sargeant slipping into second place in the Williams was a sign that it was still very early days.

When it came to his first run, Max Verstappen wasn't quick enough to depose Leclerc from the top, and neither could Sainz, Lewis Hamilton or Lando Norris once Leclerc had improved his time still further to 1:34.072s, already a weekend-best so far. FP3 pace setter Russell had his first push lap deleted for exceeding track limits, before his second was good enough for P5.

Lance Stroll has been left on the bubble in 15th with Zhou Guanyu, Nico Hulkenberg and Yuki Tsunoda along with Ricciardo and Gasly dicing with elimination, but with final runs still to go. Leclerc moved the goalposts further with a new run clocking in at 1:33.617s to stay ahead of Sainz and Verstappen, and Gasly jumped into fourth with his next run putting him ahead of Valtteri Bottas. Hulkenberg improved to sixth ahead of Haas team mate Kevin Magnussen, and Sargeant still safe in eighth ahead of Perez and Alonso.

Tsunoda made a mistake and ran off in the first sector, triggering local yellow flags in turn 5 that compromised those in the area from setting a faster lap. Fortunately his AlphaTauri team mate Ricciardo did squeeze through in P15. Stroll came close to the barrier, but his bravery paid off when he jumped to safety in P11. His improvement was a disaster for McLaren with Lando Norris already having pitted and now finding himself pushed down to 16th, joining team mate Oscar Piastri in falling at the first hurdle along with Esteban Ocon (after an incident where he nearly made contact with Verstappen), Zhou and Tsunoda.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB19. 17.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Las Vegas Grand Prix, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, Qualifying Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Coates / XPB Images

Q2: Leclerc stays fastest but Hamilton and Perez both miss the final cut

Norris remained in his car during the internal between Q1 and Q2 in case there were late sanctions or lap time deletions that might hand him a reprieve. None came, and the second round got underway devoid of any papaya-coloured cars. The other remaining drivers were back out on track resulting in the usual slowing and bunching of cars into the final corner before getting up to full speed.

Magnussen was the first driver to put in a representative lap to take first honours, but then the Ferraris checked in with Leclerc and Sainz snapping up the top two spots. Red Bull had a different idea about that and it was Perez who went one thousandths of a second faster, before Fernando Alonso went 0.085s quicker still to take command on behalf of Aston Martin. However some of the bigger names such as Verstappen, Hamilton and Russell had left it until midway through the round until emerging from pit lane.

Hamilton's first push lap was good enough to oust Alonso from the top, with Russell just a whisker slower. Then it was Verstappen who went quicker still with a time of 1:33.607s. Leclerc immediately responded, and his lap was a whopping 0.773s better than that of the Red Bull, and even half a second quicker than Sainz. Just to add even more spice into the mix, Magnussen's latest run was enough to put the Haas into the top four ahead of Hamilton and Perez. Literally no one could be completely assured they were safely through to the final top ten shoot-out round at this point given the rapid evolution of the track surface.

In the circumstances, Red Bull pulling sixth-placed Perez into the garage with two minutes remaining seemed like it was flirting with hubris. Russell jumping up to third and faster laps from Albon and Sargeant putting both Williams into the top ten proved the danger to Perez, and when the chequered flag came out he was down in the drop zone - as was Hamilton, who failed to find any more time in his final run on six-lap-old tyres and ended up in P11, a tenth off progressing. "Couldn't go faster, mate," he reported to his race engineer. Joining Hamilton and Perez on the sidelines were Hulkenberg, Stroll and Ricciardo..

Charles Leclerc (FRA), Scuderia Ferrari 17.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Las Vegas Grand Prix, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, Qualifying Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Charniaux / XPB Images

Q3: Leclerc locks in pole with Sainz second despite ten place grid penalty

Gasly was first out on track once the lights went green again at the end of pit lane. he was on used tyres to set a banker lap in the event of any yellow or red flag issues. Magnussen and Alonso were both on a similar strategy while Bottas and both Williams opted for sighting laps without setting times. In contrast, Verstappen, Russell and both Ferrari drivers were straight out on new sets.

Leclerc and Sainz assumed their usual positions at the top with the Monegasque's 1:33.021s proving 0.022s quicker than his team mate and Verstappen who was half a tenth behind, a long way ahead of those on used tyres. Russell was the final man to set a first time, but after a poor first sector he wasn't able to beat Alonso's time in fourth.

Even as Russell was crossing the line, the other cars were already cycling through put lane and heading back out for their last push laps. Verstappen was last out, seeking the very best track conditions coming right at the end of the session to get the edge he needed to defy the Ferrari supremacy. It didn't pay off, and his bid wilted even as Leclerc made another jump forward with a crushing lap of 1:32.726s to stay 0.044s ahead of the latest bid from Sainz.

Verstappen remained a hundredth ahead of Russell's final push lap to secure fourth, but there were surprises behind them as Gasly took fifth from a great effort from Albon, and Sargeant potentially securing his 2024 seat with seventh ahead of Bottas and Magnussen. Alonso dropping back to P10 but will actually start tomorrow's race from ninth. Hamilton also squeezes into the top ten on the grid thanks to Sainz' harsh ten place grid penalty for new engine components arising from the damage inflicted on his car by the water valve cover at the start of FP1, handing Verstappen a front row spot alongside Leclerc in his stead.

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