Leclerc looked strong throughout practice and never looked in doubt once qualifying started. His first attempt was good enough to lead the field by 0.334 seconds, but his pole lap put more than 0.4 seconds between him and champion leader Lewis Hamilton.
The 21-year old’s fourth pole is a feat not achieved at Ferrari since Michael Schumacher in 2000–01, when the Monegasque was just three years old. He also made himself the first non-Mercedes driver to line up at the front of the grid four times in a row since Sebastian Vettel did so for Red Bull Racing in 2011.
But after victory slipped through his grasp at last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix, Leclerc was focused only on Sunday’s result when confronted with the latest in his growing line of achievements.
“it definitely feels very, very special, but I don’t really want to think about those stats for now,” he said. “I just want to focus on the job.
“The car felt amazing. It definitely feels great to be back on pole
“There’s still a long way to go to tomorrow, but it’s definitely a good start. We’ve been competitive all weekend long and the race simulations look positive too.”
But just as he did in Singapore, Leclerc will have to contend with Hamilton’s Mercedes starting alongside him. However, in a potentially crucial difference, the Briton will start on the more durable medium-compound tyre rather than the faster but more delicate soft Leclerc will use.
Mercedes made the calculated decision suspecting it wouldn’t have a car quick enough to contend for pole, but Hamilton was pleased to start on the front row with a potential strategic weapon in his pocket.
“It was a tough qualifying session because [Ferrari] have some crazy speeds on the straights, it’s a whole other level,” he said. “Nonetheless I gave it absolutely everything I had at the end.
“I’m so glad it came together. I wasn’t expecting to get on the front row, that’s for sure. I’m really, really happy with it.
“We’ve opted for another strategy. I think the team’s done a good job putting us in that position. We’ve got to try something.”
Sebastian Vettel will line up third on the grid in the sister Ferrari, the German pipped by Hamilton by just 0.023 seconds, though he took heart from his car’s inherent pace at the Sochi track.
“Obviously I’m not entirely happy,” he said. “I don’t think I extracted the maximum of the car.
“I think the race will be decided tomorrow. The speed it there, so let’s keep it up.”
Speaking specifically about the long run from the grid to the first braking zone, notorious for its powerful slipstream opportunities, Vettel remained coy about his opportunities.
“First you need a good start, then you worry about the rest,” he said. “There’s potentially an advantage if you are behind, but I guess if you’re behind you always tend to say that! So let’s see what happens.”
Max Verstappen qualified fourth, more than half a second away from pole, but the Dutchman will start ninth after serving a five-place grid penalty for adopting a new internal combustion unit beyond his season’s maximum allocation.
Valtteri Bottas, on pole in Russia in 2018, was only fifth fastest in the second Mercedes this season, the Finn abandoning his final qualifying lap after a scrappy start to the final sector.
Carlos Sainz qualified at the head of the midfield for McLaren in a tight fight with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, the Spaniard beating the German by just 0.067 seconds with teammate Lando Norris just 0.011 further back.
Romain Grosjean qualified ninth for Haas ahead of Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo in 10th.
Pierre Gasly’s first Q2 lap was enough for sixth, but a mistake on his second attempt meant he failed to improve and fell to 11th, agonisingly short of a berth in the top-10 shootout. The Frenchman won’t be too disappointed, however, given he’ll drop five places on the grid for taking a new internal combustion unit beyond his maximum allocation — had he made it through to Q3, he would have had to start the race on used tyres and still line up further down the grid.
Sergio Perez qualified 12th for Racing point ahead of a late-improving Antonio Giovinazzi in his Alfa Romeo. Kevin Magnussen ended the session 14th for Haas despite teammate Grosjean progressing into the pole shootout, the Dane blaming a big gust of wind in the final sector knocking him off course.
Lance Stroll brought up the rear of the session in 15th after a mistake in the middle sector cost him a chance to progress.
Kimi Raikkonen had a shocking final two sectors on his last Q1 lap to be pipped by teammate Giovinazzi and knocked out in 5th by just 0.085 seconds. The Finn lost time at the last corner in particular, momentarily losing control as he mounted the kerb at the apex, delaying his return to the throttle.
George Russell led the way for Williams, though the Briton was more than half a second behind Raikkonen. His teammate, Robert Kubica, was 18th and more than a second adrift of the sister car.
Alex Albon was knocked out 19th after a crash on his second attempt at a hot lap in Q1. The Thai driver lost his first attempt to a yellow flag waved for Kubica spinning his car, but though his second effort was looking quick enough to propel him up the order, he carried too much speed into turn 13 and spun backwards into the barrier.
Albon already carried a five-place grid penalty into the session owing to a new internal combustion engine installed in his car at the start of the weekend, but his lowly starting place may tempt the team to adopt even more new parts given the relative lack of penalty.
Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat didn’t set a qualifying lap at his home grand prix thanks to the Russian requiring a string of new engine components at this race and therefore incurring a penalty sending him to the back of the grid. Despite the fresh parts, the Russian has suffered a frustrating weekend to date, suffering two engine-related stoppages during practice before choosing not to take part in qualifying.