The good times may have come back to Maranello thanks to Charles Leclerc’s back-to-back victories from pole at Spa and Monza, but upon arrival in Singapore, it seemed Ferrari would be brought back down to earth as normal service for 2019 resumed.

High downforce layouts appeared to be the Achilles’ heel for the Ferrari SF90 car, seen most starkly in Hungary when both Leclerc and teammate Sebastian Vettel finished a minute down on race winner Lewis Hamilton. The smart money was on a Mercedes-Red Bull battle playing out under the lights at Marina Bay.

But that was before Ferrari sprung a surprise in qualifying on Saturday night, taking pole position through Leclerc and only narrowly missing out on a front row lock-out, delivering the kind of display most will have wished came much earlier in the year for the sake of the championship.

Following two weeks of narrative about his days as Ferrari’s number one being well and truly over, Vettel looked on-course to rekindle some of his old Singapore spark when he sat on provisional pole after the opening qualifying runs. His effort of 1m36.437s put him three-tenths clear of both Leclerc and Verstappen, with the Mercedes pair lying a second back as both were caught in traffic during their preparations. It was a huge gap to try and make up.

Keen to avoid the kind of traffic struggles that had spoiled qualifying at Monza, Vettel opted to go it alone at the head of the pack on both of his Q3 runs to ensure there was clear track ahead. The tactic worked well both times, but on his second run, a scruffy lap followed. “Already in Sector 1 I had lost a bit then was playing catch-up,” Vettel said. “I was trying to take more and more risks throughout the lap which didn’t pay off, and then the last lap obviously didn’t come together.”

Vettel opted to abort his lap and dive into the pits, opening the door for Leclerc and Hamilton to overhaul him at the head of the field.

Leclerc crossed the line to go two-tenths up on his teammate with his final effort, leaving it late to continue his streak of qualifying victories over Vettel to an eighth race weekend. At a track Vettel had previously made his own in F1, winning on four occasions, it was no easy feat.

The jubilation from Leclerc over team radio made clear just how much the pole meant to him – and how much of a surprise it was. “Woooohooo!” he cheered. “Look at that! Oh my God, look at the lap! I lost control I think three times in the lap!”

A look back at Leclerc’s pole effort show where the errors came, with two big snaps on the car – one at Turn 3, one at Turn 11 - looking like the kind of errors that would normally rule you out of pole contention.

“There were quite a lot of mistakes,” Leclerc said after the session. “I lost the car quite a few times and I’ve seen myself in the wall at least twice or three times in the lap, but it felt amazing, the car was great.

“Friday was a very difficult day for me and to come here in qualifying and do the pole position feels absolutely amazing.”

Leclerc had lost some track time on Friday due to a gearbox issue, and finished off the pace in FP2, saying at the end of the day he didn’t have a huge amount of confidence in the car – something crucial to success around a street circuit like Singapore. Perhaps the errors indicated he was still lacking something – but nevertheless, it was still enough to give him a fifth pole of the year.

Ferrari’s resurgence came as a big surprise to Hamilton, who recovered from his slow first effort in Q3 to split the red cars in P2, 0.191s down on Leclerc’s time.

“All of a sudden they’ve brought an upgrade here, and it seems to have worked,” said Hamilton. “Of course we were not expecting to have such a strong performance from them and to have that deficit to them. But they did a great job and I’m grateful that was able to split them – only just.

“We were definitely lacking pace today, it was definitely a struggle out there to battle with them and be up there.”

The Ferrari upgrade has offered a long-overdue step, meaning that even with a couple of errors, Leclerc still had enough time in hand to take pole.

“It seems that it’s working,” Leclerc said of the upgrade. “I think data-wise it was working yesterday for the engineers too. I think, from Hungary to now, we’ve understood also the car better in a way that we know the balance we need to achieve in order to have the best performance and I think that has also showed in the results on track.

“I think it’s a combination of knowing where the balance needs to be and the improvements that we’ve made on the car.”

Vettel said the car felt like it “didn’t have such a great balance” in Hungary: “I think some corners were very good, other corners we lost a lot. It seems like this weekend we’re not losing in those corners that we were losing in Hungary. I think it’s mostly adding performance to the car and in the right place, so we were able to trim the balance, so that we could extract more performance.”

Mercedes chief Toto Wolff offered a similar response to the defeats in Spa and Monza, saying it came as another reminder to the team that it cannot let up in its push at the front.

“Overall, their package is powerful,” Wolff said. “We have to take ourselves by the nose and say ‘did we do everything right?’ and certainly the answer is not completely. It’s all about finding the sweet spot of the tyres. I think when it mattered we probably weren’t in the best place.

“I think you always need to have Ferrari on the radar. They’ve had some pretty good races at the beginning of the season, and then it somehow fell apart and a strong run most recently.

“When we came into this weekend I heard so many times ‘well you are the favourites and it’s going to be between you and Red Bull and Ferrari is going to be nowhere because their car only goes fast on the straight’, and I always said try to be cautious about these things - and here we go.

“It’s maybe a bit of an extravagant track, and a little bit of an outlier and maybe they were lucky - but I don’t think so.

“I think Ferrari is a force to be reckoned with always.”

As surprising as Saturday’s result may have been, it was a timely reminder to Mercedes that Ferrari remains strong, and that the success at Spa and Monza was more than a flash-in-the-pan.

The challenge for Leclerc and Vettel will be delivering when it matters on Sunday if they want to really fan the flames toward Mercedes.

 

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