Leclerc only managed a disappointing 11th place in qualifying as Ferrari failed to get both of their cars out of Q2 for the second weekend in a row, despite the wet conditions shaking up the grid on Saturday afternoon.
While Sebastian Vettel managed to improve on his performance last weekend by a sole position – the four-time world champion made it to Q3 but had to make do with 10th place – Leclerc could not repeat last week’s result.
But his task on Sunday has become considerably harder after being summoned to the stewards for not immediately returning to the pit lane when the red flags came out after Antonio Giovinazzi’s incident towards the end of Q1. After the Alfa Romeo stopped out on track following an off at the final corner, Leclerc has been found to have continued past the pit lane entry to complete his lap, which is a breach of the F1 rules.
The FIA regulations state that in the event of a red flag, “all cars must immediately reduce speed and proceed slowly back to the pitlane”.
To make matters worse, Leclerc was also found guilty of blocking Alpha Tauri’s Daniil Kvyat, although the Russian did play down the incident.
“I think he blocked me on one of my laps, but to be honest I don’t think it was my best lap – I can’t remember anymore, there was a lot going on,” said Kvyat. “It was a very busy session, so I think... it was just a poor visibility, really.”
It capped a dramatic session that was delayed by more than 45 minutes due to heavy rain in Austria, and once the action finally got underway, reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton displayed his class to master the tricky conditions and take pole position in a thrilling battle with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
The young Dutchman ended up more than 1.2s behind Hamilton’s fastest time, but was unable to finish his best lap after spinning off at the final corner, with Verstappen admitting afterwards that he was distracted by Vettel’s Ferrari retreating to the pits as he rounded the penultimate turn.
“I guess it was Seb going in the pits – you can’t see even the colour of the car [in the rain],” Verstappen said.
“I understeered because of it and then I went a bit wide – like I came onto the kerb on the exit and then I lost it.
“So, I had a four-wheel drift into the last corner but, anyway, it was not good enough a lap to beat Lewis.”
The session very nearly didn’t happen at all after Saturday morning practice was cancelled, with fears that qualifying would need to be postponed until Sunday morning as was the case at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix. However, a window in the weather allowed the action to get underway, which produced an entertaining first segment as drivers battled poor visibility conditions and a full track in an effort to reach Q2.
“Overall quali was good – just Q1 was so busy,” said Verstappen. “You couldn’t see a thing, you always had to drop (and) leave a bit of space so you could do a lap.
“So basically in the whole of Q1 I didn’t really have a free lap, but still it was alright. Also the track I think was not too bad to drive on.
“It’s just with these cars, with these big tyres on it’s incredible – you can’t see a thing when you are within six seconds of the car ahead of you.
“But it was all going well – same in Q2 actually – I think it was all pretty good.
“But then towards the end it started to rain a bit more and immediately sector two was becoming more tricky.
“So I couldn’t really improve my last two or three laps – but it was good enough of course to go to Q3.
“And then Q3 was very difficult – for me at least. Just a lot of standing water.
“I lost quite a lot of grip and it didn’t feel as good as it did in Q1 and Q2 but still of course to be second is alright.”