Ferrari driver Leclerc looked to have the potential to beat Perez and possibly even threaten eventual pole winner Verstappen for top spot, but surprisingly climbed out of his SF-23 ahead of the second and final runs.
This, he and Ferrari claimed, was a tactic to save a set of brand-new soft tyres to use at the start of Sunday’s race, which they hope will provide more grip off the line and then also have better tyre degradation across the opening stint, a factor Ferrari struggled with in 2022.
When asked by Autosport to clarify just how much benefit Ferrari felt its Q3 tactics would provide, Leclerc said it would be «a bit more grip. That’s [it]».
«I don’t know if it will be a game-changer,» he continued.
Sitting alongside Leclerc in the same post-qualifying press conference, Verstappen responded to the topic by explaining, «I have one set with only an out-lap [completed], so it should be OK», with Perez nodding his agreement to the Dutchman’s right.
In qualifying’s opening segment, the Red Bull drivers progressed with a single timed lap, set after two pieces of Leclerc’s left-front wheel cover fairing fell off as he began an initial run on the medium Pirelli rubber and caused a brief red-flag stoppage.
But Verstappen and Perez did later emerge for a second time in Q1, coming out right at the end of the segment and completing an out-in cycle, which means the lightly cured rubber should still last for a long time at the start of the race.
Red Bull could choose to use another compound in any case, but the optimum race strategy is thought to be a two-stopper starting on the softs and switching to the hards, given the Bahrain track’s abrasive surface.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19
Photo by: Erik Junius
Leclerc was also asked if the data Ferrari had logged in testing and Friday’s FP2 session in Bahrain had provided any tangible encouragement regarding improvement on the tyre degradation weakness it often showed compared to Red Bull in 2022.
He said: «I think we improved our process of throughout the race trying to take care of these tyres more» but feels «if I look in FP2 we are still quite a bit slower than Red Bull in terms of pace and tyre degradation».
«So, we still need to see tomorrow and see where we are exactly,» he added. «But if we focus on ourselves, yes, I feel like we have done a step forwards. But I’m not sure it’s enough.»
In Friday’s FP2 session, Ferrari was tracked averaging over half a second slower each time than Red Bull during a race-like stint on the softs, with Aston Martin also ahead of the red team in this area too in FP2.
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This led Leclerc to conclude Ferrari needs to «be realistic» about its chances of beating Red Bull to the Bahrain victory, despite getting closer than many – including Leclerc himself – had expected in qualifying for the season opener.
«Those guys and also Aston Martin seems to be really, really quick in the race, which is why I think we made that choice in Q3 to be willing to lose one or two positions at the start but having new tyres to put all the chances on our side,» Leclerc explained.
«Which I’m sure is the right choice, but let’s see tomorrow.»