Charles Leclerc had to charge hard for his pole at the Monaco Grand Prix. So hard indeed, he claimed the top spot despite crashing out on the streets of Monte Carlo. The Monégasque driver was a surprise winner in qualifying at his home race, after a gripping session that also has the potential to dramatically change the shape of this year’s Formula One world championship after Lewis Hamilton was left languishing in seventh, disappointed in how his Mercedes team had handled his weekend.
Leclerc took the pole having already set the quickest time before he hit the barriers ending the session on his final hot lap in Monaco. It drew to a close what had promised to be a nail-biting finale but much as it favoured the 23-year-old it had not been intentional. Indeed, he now faces a tense wait to assess the damage his Ferrari sustained. If he has to take a gearbox replacement the pole will be lost to a five-place grid penalty.
Behind him the results were equally dramatic. Max Verstappen was in second for Red Bull but Hamilton, who leads the Dutchman by 14 points in the championship, was uncompetitive, five places behind. With overtaking so hard on the streets of Monte Carlo, if the pair finish in the same positions Verstappen could move to within two points of Hamilton.
Hamilton had struggled to put heat into his tyres throughout the session and not gone better than seventh throughout qualifying. He was not happy with how the car had progressed over the weekend, believing Mercedes had made setup changes to the car that had gone in completely the wrong direction. Hamilton is rarely openly critical of his team but he was clear there would be a vigorous debriefing after qualifying.
“There will be some tough discussions with my engineers tonight or maybe after the weekend,” he said. “There are things that should have been done and haven’t been done. It is frustrating, it is what it is. I can’t really say too much because we deal with this as a team and I don’t want to be critical of the team but behind closed doors I will be. We have to work harder.”
For Leclerc, taking his debut pole in Monaco, suggestions there were shades of Michael Schumacher’s halt to deliberately end the session here in his favour in 2006 were unfounded. In truth the 23-year-old was just pushing too hard.
“If I was doing it on purpose I would make sure to hit the wall a bit less hard,” he said. “It wasn’t on purpose, obviously. I was pushing the limit, for now I am just worried about the rear of the car. I hope it is OK, it doesn’t look OK.” Verstappen, who had been on course to go quicker than Leclerc when his final lap was brought to a halt by the red flags, also accepted that there was no premeditation on Leclerc’s behalf.
“If Charles had just parked it with broken front wing it’s a different story,” he said. “Charles had a misjudgment, it’s just unfortunate. We are all trying so hard and it’s not so easy round here, especially on the limit, it’s easy to make a mistake.” Verstappen laid down his marker on his first run in Q3 with a time of 1min 10.576sec but Leclerc followed him and promptly hit back, going a full two-tenths quicker, making gains in sector two with a time of 1min 10.346. With the track offering the most grip the final runs were vital but as they were under way the Monégasque driver entered the swimming pool chicane and clipped the barriers on the inside with his right front, damaging his suspension and causing him to bounce across the kerbs into the wall. Ferrari have said that initial checks of the gearbox did not reveal serious damage but further checks would have to be carried out on Sunday to ascertain whether it can be used in the race.
For Mercedes the investigation and an exercise in damage limitation on Sunday is just beginning. While the celebrations for Ferrari are on hold as they hope to retain a remarkable result after their travails last season.
In 2020 they suffered their worst finish since 1980 with sixth place and it is their first pole since Leclerc took the top spot in Mexico in 2019. They are potentially in the best possible position to convert it to a win, while Hamilton faces a long, trying afternoon at a meeting where Saturday performance is all and for once the Mercedes juggernaut was found wanting.
Valtteri Bottas was third for Mercedes. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was in fourth with McLaren’s Lando Norris in fifth. Pierre Gasly was in sixth for AlphaTauri; Sebastian Vettel in eighth for Aston Martin; Sergio Pérez ninth for Red Bull and Antonio Giovinazzi in 10th for Alfa Romeo.
Esteban Ocon was in 11th for Alpine, in front of the McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo. Lance Stroll was in 13th for Aston Martin with Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen in 14th and the Williams of George Russell in 15th.
The double world champion Fernando Alonso went out in Q3 in 17th, behind the AlphaTauri of Yuki Tsunoda. Nicholas Latifi was in 18th for Williams.
Mick Schumacher did not take part in qualifying after he crashed his Haas late in final practice. He will be permitted to take part in the race, starting from the back of the grid. His teammate Nikita Mazepin was in 19th.