The more Charles Leclerc does in Formula 1, the better he looks.
His pole position at the Russian Grand Prix was another outstanding lap from a driver who is coming to specialise in them.
That’s quite exalted company for a man who, it is easy to forget, so accomplished is his driving, is not even two seasons into his F1 career.
It was also the ninth time in a row that Leclerc has out-qualified Sebastian Vettel, the four-time champion who started this season as Ferrari’s lead driver, but does not look very much like it any more.
Leclerc had a shaky start to this season in qualifying, until he turned a corner with some changes to his approach at the French Grand Prix in late June, so he is ‘only’ 10-6 up on Vettel in their qualifying battle this season.
But his average advantage over the German for the season is 0.159 seconds. And since he started his current run in France, it is a massive 0.414secs.
In Sochi on Sunday, Leclerc beat Vettel by 0.425secs, and it could easily have been more – he ended his pole lap cursing into the radio, saying he had messed up the last sector, the one with the most corners, and where his advantage over his team-mate has been biggest all weekend.
Had he not, his advantage could easily have been more like 0.6secs.
These are numbers that speak of domination, and to be performing at this level against a man in the same equipment who is third in F1’s all-time winners’ list speaks volumes for the quality of Leclerc’s performance right now.
And he’s doing it with a charming modesty, too.
He looks almost embarrassed when people bring up the legends of the sport with whom his statistics are beginning to be compared – “I don’t want to think about those stats for now,” he said, when Schumacher was mentioned. “I just want to focus on the job” – but if he carries on like this he’s going to have to get used to it.
A difficult race to call
On paper, they should. The car has been demonstrably the fastest all weekend, and its trump card is its formidable straight-line speed. Not only should this protect Leclerc on the run to the first corner – at least from LeWIS Hamilton in second; although Vettel in third with a slipstream might be problematic – but it will make it very difficult for any other car to pass a red one once the race has settled down.
Recognising these two facts, Mercedes have thrown the strategic dice, and their cars will start on the more durable medium tyre while Ferrari have gone for the conventional route of the soft.
“They are on a lower drag level plus they have that power so we had to try something,” the world champion said.
The first question about the race is how the start develops. This is the longest run to the first corner from the start of the season, and two years ago Bottas used the slipstream created by the cars in front to leapfrog past the front-row starting Ferraris into a lead at the first corner that he never lost.
The slipstream off the start line is a major concern for all the front-runners going into Sunday’s race.
“It is a difficult one,” Hamilton said. “It is such a long straight. I am second. It is usually a bit dirtier on the right. Will he (Leclerc) cover and give me the tow? If he does, great.
“Will he stay in position and give Seb a tow and they both keep pulling past and we fall back to third? Will I be able to get a better start and then he’ll pull away at some point? I don’t know.
“There are so many scenarios. That’s why starts are so great. It is about being on your toes. It is about picking up whatever ball drops and being the quickest to react.”
Once the positions are set at the first corner, the question then is which strategy is the best one?
Mercedes’ plan by going for the medium is to out-strategise Ferrari, presumably by running longer and going for the so-called ‘over-cut’, which is theoretically feasible in Russia because tyre degradation tends to be low on a very low-abrasion circuit.
But that depends on two things – the Mercedes actually being a faster race car; and the tyres still being in good enough condition if they run long to lap quickly on them.
In recent races, Mercedes have generally had better race pace than Ferrari even when the Italian cars have qualified ahead.
Leclerc’s wins in Spa and Monza came after races spent under pressure from Mercedes behind him.
The relative race pace of the two cars in Singapore – where Ferrari introduced the upgrade that appears to have turned their car into the plain fastest everywhere, rather than just on circuits dominated by long straights – was never seen because the race was effectively decided by Ferrari’s strategy and one lap in clear air by Vettel after his stop, which no other driver had the benefit of.
How will it play out in Russia? Leclerc says he is confident because, unusually, Ferrari’s race runs looked pretty strong in Friday practice.
“There is a long way to go and it is a good start,” he said. “We have been competitive all weekend and the race simulation seems good too.
“It is going to be difficult to keep everyone behind, especially at the start, as it is a very long way to Turn Two but it was a very positive race run in P2 so that is a positive sign already.”
Hamilton added: “I’ve got to figure a way to get by that Ferrari. I can’t do it on the straights. They have too many horses. It is going to have to be like a chess game and every move has to be perfect to have any window of opportunity to swing past. That’s what we’re going to work on tonight.”