Pole-sitter Leclerc eyes maiden Monaco win as Verstappen struggles

Ferrari's Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc celebrates after taking pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix (ANDREJ ISAKOVIC)
Ferrari's Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc celebrates after taking pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix (ANDREJ ISAKOVIC)

Charles Leclerc stayed calm and focused on Saturday after ending Max Verstappen's record run of pole positions by topping a tense and dramatic qualifying session at the Monaco Grand Prix.

After securing Ferrari's 250th pole position as a Formula One constructor and his third at his home-town circuit, the 26-year-old Monegasque driver said he was painfully aware that he had yet to score a Monte Carlo podium -- and was intent on winning Sunday's 78-lap race.

"I know very well that more often than not qualifying is not everything, as much as it helps for Sunday's race, and we need to put everything together," he said. "In past years, we didn't manage to do so.

"But we are a stronger team now and in a stronger position so I am sure we can achieve great things tomorrow and a win is the target.

"I need a good launch off the grid and once we do that -– and hopefully Carlos (Sainz) can have a great start and follow me into Turn One and be 1-2 -– we can manage it as a team.

"That would be a perfect scenario. Whatever happens, we just need to bring that victory home."

Leclerc, who has failed to convert any of his last 12 pole positions into a win, clocked a best lap of one minute and 10.270 seconds to outpace nearest rival Oscar Piastri of McLaren by 0.154 seconds.

It ended Verstappen's run of seven poles this year and a record-equalling eight in succession, shared with three-time world champion Ayrton Senna.

Leclerc's winning margin over Australian Piastri was bigger than the gap separating the McLaren driver from Verstappen in sixth.

"Credit to Charles he's been incredibly quick all weekend and at certain points, I don't think anyone thought we were going to get close to him," said Piastri.

"It's nice to be starting on the front-row, it feels like it has been a good weekend in terms of building momentum - and what better colours to do it than this?" he added, referring to the special green and yellow livery to commemorate Senna sported by the team this weekend.

"A good start always helps and if you can get into the lead then you can control it very easily," continued the Australian, "because, as optimistic as I want to be, overtaking around here is not easy".

- 'Nothing worked' -

Leclerc's Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz was third ahead of Lando Norris in the second McLaren, Mercedes' George Russell and Verstappen, the series leader and three-time world champion, who wound up sixth after glancing the barriers on his final fast lap.

"We tried everything this weekend to come up with a successful plan but nothing has worked," said Verstappen.

"The car is just so difficult to drive.

"I don't think there's much we can do in the race to pass anyone. We just have to stick with them."

Ferrari team chief Fred Vasseur, like Leclerc, was keen to avoid celebrating what he said was "a good step".

"The race is tomorrow and you don't score points on Saturday, you just have to stay calm and prepare for tomorrow," he said. "It's a good step and the pole at Monaco is always the best position for the race."

Since 2018, when he made his debut with Sauber, Leclerc has suffered bad luck in Monaco.

He crashed and did not finish his maiden home race, retired with a damaged right rear after hitting the barriers in 2019 and then took pole in 2021, but did not start the race due to a driveshaft failure on his way to the grid.

In 2022, he was on pole again, but Ferrari's botched strategy cost him a near-certain win. Last year, having taken a three-place grid penalty, he started and finished sixth.

"It's Monaco so anything can happen like always and we will give it our best shot, but the priority is to win with Charles," said Sainz.

"The truth is Charles has been doing an outstanding job, the car has been amazing all weekend and he managed to extract the most of it and I'm happy for him."

Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton was seventh in the second Mercedes ahead of RB's Yuki Tsunoda, Alex Albon of Williams and Pierre Gasly of Alpine.