Leclerc pleased with Ferrari strategy; seeks qualifying improvement

Charles Leclerc said he was pleased with Ferrari's execution of their one-stop strategy after finishing fourth at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday but conceded he had left himself with too much to do after struggling in qualifying.

Leclerc, who started eighth, completed 27 laps on a set of medium tyres before switching to hards and defending tenaciously to hold off McLaren's Lando Norris.

The Monegasque driver was eventually passed by teammate Carlos Sainz, who finished third behind the Red Bull 1-2 of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez.

Despite being voted Driver of the Day, Leclerc dropped down to third in the driver's standings with 59 points, four ahead of teammate Sainz.

Verstappen leads the title race on 77 points ahead of his team mate Perez on 64.

Leclerc couldn't improve on eighth in qualifying on Saturday, and said the tyre preparation before a flying lap hampered his chances which makes the race more difficult.

"As I said yesterday, I was happy with the lap but I just didn't have enough grip available," he told Sky Sports. "This is mostly coming from the track time to get the tyres in the right window and from that moment it puts us in a very difficult situation for the rest of the weekend because starting eighth you cannot do much more.

"We did an amazing tyre strategy, amazing tyre management and amazing pace but it's just not enough when you're starting eighth.

"It's not very often in my career that I had to focus on qualifying days because this normally is one of my strengths. But Australia and here, this is where I've been struggling so I'll focus on that. But normally when I work on something I get better quite quickly, so I'm confident."

Leclerc admitted the Red Bull team are "too far ahead" but is optimistic Ferrari could close the gap with some upgrades.

"For now, they are too far ahead but we are doing a really good job of maximising the points at the beginning of the season," he said. "When we have the upgrades maybe we'll be able to challenge them and that will be the moment we can put them under more pressure and hopefully take more and more points from them."

He added that his teammate Sainz is doing a great job. "Carlos has always been strong. [Last year] one race he was a little bit stronger, one race I was a little bit stronger. He's been two races stronger so congratulations to him, he's done a great job.

"It's very clear to me where I need to work, it's mostly qualifying ... I have no doubt in the race the pace is there, it's just that in qualifying I need to put everything together."

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Team boss Frederic Vasseur said Ferrari had done well to bounce back from their disappointing showing in the final practice session and qualifying.

"We had a very strong Sunday with a good strategy and we were able to come back and if we want to do a better weekend, we'll have to improve the Saturdays," Vasseur added.

"We made a good step with the car during the winter, even the last part of last year, but everybody's much more confident in the team, much more calm and we are doing a good job together."

Sainz once again delivered for Ferrari two weeks after his win at the Australian Grand Prix, claiming his third podium finish in as many races this season.

The Spaniard, who missed the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix while recovering from appendix surgery, is set to lose his race seat to seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton in 2025.

"Unfortunately, I have no clue where I'm going to be next year. It is true that we're talking to many teams," Sainz said.

"I just need to go keep focused on what I'm doing just prove to myself to everyone that when I'm given a fast car you know I'm maximising what I'm given.

"I deliver you know, it's been a strong start... [Teams] know I'm available. Let's see what happens."