Charles Leclerc is determined to end his long wait to convert a pole position into a race win again, but the Ferrari polesitter and his likely rivals for victory are aware the outcome of the inaugural Las Vegas GP will likely be determined by F1’s equivalent of ‘playing your cards right’.
Leclerc will head the grid for lights out at 6am on Sunday – live on Sky Sports F1 and Sky Showcase – after a superb qualifying performance which the Monegasque said included the “best lap I have ever done in Formula 1” during Q2.
He was not as happy with his performance in Q3, but his first lap in the shootout under the Las Vegas lights was still good enough to secure him a fifth pole position of the season and third in the last four races.
Now for the crunch. Leclerc and Ferrari’s problem has not been topping qualifying – he now has 24 poles in total in F1, the 12th most of all time – but converting them into wins.
Incredibly, none of Leclerc’s last 11 poles, dating back to the Australian GP in April 2022 have been followed up with Grand Prix victory.
It is the challenge to end that sequence and Ferrari’s trend to fall backwards from strong qualifying results – plus the unique aspects that come with racing at 10pm local time in Vegas – that are at the forefront of Leclerc’s mind.
“Without a doubt tyre management will be what will make our race great or really bad,” Leclerc told Sky F1.
“It always is like this; tyre management is always a big thing. But it’s true that with these very cold temperatures the graining will be a thing, the loss of temperatures towards the end of the run will be a big thing as well.
“But I don’t know – I felt good since the first lap in FP1 so I really hope we can convert that pole finally because there have been too many poles without converting it to victory because we didn’t have the car [to win] on race day. I hope that [on Sunday] it will be the case.”
Team-mate Carlos Sainz, who had qualified alongside Leclerc on the front row but will drop back to 12th owing to a grid penalty, took Ferrari’s only hitherto win this season the last time they raced on a street track, in Singapore in September.
Leclerc has been stuck on five career wins since July 2022 and, put to him that Vegas would be the perfect place to party after winning again, said: “That would be the dream scenario! It would make up for the season I’ve had. Looking back, every time a really good result was on the cards something happened.”
But will Verstappen and Red Bull simply cash in again?
With Ferrari denied what would have been a commanding front-row lockout by Sainz’s controversial grid drop, Max Verstappen joins Leclerc at the head of the field for what will be a short run to the opening corner at the 6am lights out.
Leclerc has been overtaken before the first turn the last two times he has started from pole – by Lando Norris in the USA and Verstappen in Mexico – and the latter will likely remain favourite for victory in most observers’ minds given he has won 17 times from 20 races this season.
Asked if Verstappen can again get ahead of Leclerc early on in Sunday’s 50-lap race, Red Bull boss Christian Horner told Sky F1: “I think it will be different here but it’s a track you can definitely overtake on. It’s going to make it interesting.”
Verstappen’s public expressions of dislike for the new Strip circuit and the glittering Las Vegas event as a whole have not shown any sign of detracting from his performance on the track so far this weekend. He finished 0.378s back on Leclerc’s pole time and said: “It felt good yesterday. I would have liked to have a bit more pace today.
“The points are [on Sunday] and it’s going to be a tough one.
“First one here, there might be Safety Cars and it’s a very long straight, so there will be a lot of racing and I hope we are good on the tyres.”
Russell on the ‘unknowns’ of the first Strip race | How many pit stops will we see?
The track temperature is expected to be around 15 degrees during the race, which starts at 10pm local time in Vegas. It is by far the coldest race of the year so the drivers will be going into unknown territory.
There may be a lack of high-speed corners but that certainly does not correspond to there being minimal tyre wear. The cold temperatures put the tyres out of their working window and can lead to severe graining.
“Going into tomorrow, it’s a total unknown. These tyres are just not working around this circuit in the race conditions,” said Mercedes’ George Russell, who will start third.
“They are totally falling apart because they are so cold. The tyres aren’t designed to work in these cold conditions. The team that comes out on top will be the team that manages to keep them alive.”
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Off line, the track will be dirty but the long straights mean overtaking should be possible. However, it will not be too easy because everyone is running low rear wings, so the slipstream effect is not as substantial, similar to Monza in that respect.
Some teams have not run the hard tyre and the performance of that compound will be key to see if it is a one- or two-stop race.
“I think if you’re able to keep it [the tyres] within the threshold, it will be an easy one stop. As soon as you go over that threshold it’s unrecoverable and you might need to do two or three stops,” continued Russell.
“Right now we are all scratching our heads, thinking how are we going to approach the race. We haven’t ran the hard tyre yet. Maybe the hard tyre is just much better than the medium and you won’t be entering that graining that we have seen on all the teams.
“You’re going to have to push the tyre to find out, but if you push it and go over the limit, you’re probably doomed. It’s a real strange one, I don’t really know how to approach the race.”
As for what Russell can do himself, he is unlikely to be battling for the same piece of tarmac as Lewis Hamilton for the first time in a while.
With a strong start, Russell can maybe feature near the front in the opening laps with Verstappen and Leclerc, but he is likely going to be looking over his shoulder due to a lack of outright speed compared to Red Bull and Ferrari.
Russell has only had one podium this year, at the Spanish Grand Prix in June, and simply wants a race with no issues.
“I just want a clean race to be honest. It’s probably been the scrappiest season of my life,” he said.
“Every clean race weekend I’ve had has been when the car was slow and every time the car has been quick, everything was up in the air whether it’s mistakes on my side or unfortunate strategy or DNFs.
“I just want a clean race. I want to get these two races over and done with. We have to keep an eye on Ferrari. They are only 20 points behind us, probably should have been on for a one-two.
“Charles is definitely the favourite, so we need damage limitation but if there’s an opportunity, we will go for it.”
When to watch Sunday’s Las Vegas GP live on Sky Sports F1 and Sky Showcase
Sunday November 19
- 4:30am: Grand Prix Sunday: Las Vegas GP build-up (also on Sky Showcase)
- 6am: THE LAS VEGAS GRAND PRIX (also on Sky Showcase)
- 8am: Chequered Flag: Las Vegas GP reaction (also on Sky Showcase)
- 9am: Ted’s Notebook (also on Sky Showcase)
Watch the whole Las Vegas GP weekend live on Sky Sports F1 with lights out on Sunday at 6am. Stream F1 on Sky Sports with NOW