Mercedes or Max Verstappen? Leclerc reveals Abu Dhabi GP focus and admits qualifying surprise

Charles Leclerc will start the 2023 Abu Dhabi GP second for Ferrari, ahead of Mercedes' George Russell and Lewis Hamilton

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Charles Leclerc admitted he was surprised at his pace in qualifying for the 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, putting his Ferrari on the front row despite the Scuderia looking out of the battle at the front for most of the weekend.

Sat seventh in the drivers’ championship, Leclerc could finish as high as fourth while the contstructors’ battle between Ferrari and Mercedes looks finely poised with George Russell qualifying fourth but Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz starting outside the top 10.

Leclerc led 13 laps in Las Vegas, held the net lead for more than double that time and was in contention for victory throughout the race, but was unsure if he can repeat that in Abu Dhabi and challenge Verstappen for the win.

“I don’t know, but the only thing that matters to me is that we challenge Mercedes and take the second place in the constructors,” Leclerc told the press. “Because honestly, I don’t care about finishing fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh in the drivers’ standings.

“But the second in the constructors will be nice so we just need to beat the Mercedes and of course if there’s an opportunity to beat Max tomorrow I’ll take it.

“However, on a track like this with conditions like this I expect us to struggle a bit more than Las Vegas in race pace.

“But let’s see, we’ve been good with the tyre management in Vegas in very different conditions, in FP3 [in Abu Dhabi] I had quite a good feeling during the race simulations so I hope we can reproduce that tomorrow.”

Strange Saturday in Abu Dhabi

Charles Leclerc on track in free practice ahead of the 2023 Abu Dhabi GP | Ferrari Spa

Leclerc sat out FP1 in favour of Robert Shwartzman, who pushed Sainz very close, and topped a majorly curtailed FP2 session which is the only practice time after dark in qualifying and race conditions.

However, he looked well off the pace of Russell and Mercedes in FP3, while heading into Q3 the pole position battle appeared to be between McLaren and Verstappen.

Several drivers failed to significantly improve on their final runs though, while Leclerc launched himself up the timesheets and onto the front row, two-tenths ahead of Oscar Piastri and Russell.

“It’s very, very strange,” Leclerc added. “In FP3 everything felt really good, but we were just super slow and it’s a bit difficult as a driver to then pinpoint something because you just don’t have enough grip to go faster. FP2 was really good, I didn’t do FP1 but as a team I think we struggled massively so it’s a good surprise.

“And I think it confirms a little bit our whole season where we have a very peaky car, whenever we are in the right window that’s great, whenever we fall out of that window a little bit then it has huge consequences.

“It was a bit of a surprise because Q1 and Q2 I was on the limits of making it through, it was quite tight and I was actually worried to get through.

“Then in Q3 I managed to put a good lap together and everything felt good so I’m really happy with that lap because I definitely did not expect to be on the front row this weekend considering how much we we struggled.”

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