SINGAPORE -- It's amazing the difference 24 hours can make.
On Friday evening in Singapore, it seemed as though we were heading toward a straight fight for pole position between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. But what eventuated on Saturday was nothing of the sort as Ferrari's Charles Leclerc came from nowhere to stun the field and clinch yet another pole position.
Where did that come from?
Who said Formula One fails to throw up surprises?
OK, the same driver taking pole position three races in a row might not seem like a shock result, but no one was expecting Ferrari to be so competitive in Singapore, including the team itself.
The 2019 formbook has told us that Ferrari's car has inherent issues with low and medium-speed corners -- like the ones that make up the majority of the Marina Bay lap. But all of a sudden on Saturday evening the SF90 was the car to beat and Charles Leclerc took pole position with Sebastian Vettel a solid third.
So why the sudden burst of pace? The team has brought a significant upgrade package to the front of its car this weekend, including added winglets under the nose -- often referred to as a "cape". The Ferrari version is quite distinct from a similar concept that has been on the Mercedes since 2018, and it seemed the team needed Friday's two practice sessions to get a handle on how it was working.
On Friday evening, the fastest Ferrari was 0.8s off the pace, with similar complaints from the drivers over a lack of front-end grip. That meant the car was haemorrhaging lap time in the final sector, which is made up of a sequence of slow 90-degree corners and requires a positive turn in.
What's more, the key to a quick lap in Singapore is getting the front-to-rear balance working in tandem, allowing sufficient turn-in on entry and grip on exit. As soon as the car becomes unbalanced, it can overheat the tyres on one axle more than the other and the driver's performance quickly spirals downwards.
But after redressing the balance of the car with setup tweaks in the early hours of Saturday morning, the car came alive when it hit the track again in final practice on Saturday afternoon and was even quicker in the evening qualifying session.
"Yesterday we suffered with a lack of front grip so we tried to put more front in the car," Sebastian Vettel said. "Tonight when the temperatures dropped it seems to come alive, I think that was the biggest difference. In terms of [car] spec it was exactly the same as yesterday."
For Leclerc, who was 1.2s off the pace on Friday, there was also time to find from his own performance.
"I was not happy with my driving yesterday -- I think there was quite a bit of that as part of it," he said. "It was not a great day for me. I improved a lot today, and as Seb said, the balance we improved quite a bit from yesterday to today."
The result was a Ferrari race car that retained its top-speed advantage on the straights -- something that was clear to see in Sector 1 from Leclerc's 0.231s advantage -- and the ability to match Mercedes' pace in the final two sectors of the lap.
Vettel hooked up a quick lap on his first attempt in Q3, but it was Leclerc who got the best out of the car on the second run when track conditions were at the best. The reward was pole position.
Could this be a turning point for Ferrari?
Team principal Mattia Binotto refused to get ahead of himself with the team's third pole position in as many races, but said it could be a positive step for the development of next year's car, which is already well underway.
"We have all the data to analyse the performance, but obviously today it was even better than what we had hoped for," he said. "We knew that with the new aero package we were heading in the right direction, and for us it's important to know we are developing the car in the right direction, as that will also be useful for next year. That's something we're counting on.
"After the two wins in Spa and Monza there was this great boost inside the team, everybody was coming here hoping, somehow, to do something special, and today, at least, we did it. The race is only tomorrow, we should not forget that, but starting from the front in Singapore, it's always a great moment."
The prospect of fighting a Ferrari that is as good in the corners as it is on the straights must be a worrying one for Mercedes, but team boss Toto Wolff said Saturday's result was also partly down to his team failing to get the best from its car and tyre package.
"When you look at Charles' lap, it was messy," Wolff said. "There was a big moment in Turn 3 and another snap during the lap, so it's just overall that the package is powerful.
"But then, we have got to take ourselves by the nose and say, 'Did we do everything right?' and certainly the answer is not completely. It's all about finding the sweet spot of the tyre, and you can see that throughout the weekend, sometimes the drivers felt the grip level was good and other times not.
"I think when it mattered, we probably weren't in the best place."
There's also the pressing matter of whether Ferrari can maintain the same pace throughout a race distance ...
Leclerc continues to smash records
During the post-qualifying press conference, Hamilton turned to Leclerc and asked him if he had just taken a third consecutive pole position.
Leclerc smiled and nodded. He certainly had.
Statistically, Hamilton is the greatest qualifier in the history of Formula One, but even he hadn't managed to string three pole positions together so earlier in his career. In fact, it took him six and a half years, until races 118-120, to achieve such a feat. Leclerc, meanwhile, has managed it in his second season in races 33-35.
But that's not all.
With five pole positions in 2019, Leclerc now has more than anyone else. Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas both have four, while Verstappen and Vettel each have one.
Also, no 21-year-old has ever taken as many pole positions as Leclerc. Hamilton himself had to wait until he was 22 before he first topped a qualifying session.
Oh, and as if that's not enough, Leclerc's managed to out qualify Vettel at each of the last eight races. There's no doubt he's firming as the Scuderia No. 1 ...
Can Ferrari maintain its pace on race day?
If Ferrari's single-lap pace looked bad in Friday practice, it's long-run pace looked downright terrible.
On like-for-like long runs on the soft tyres (the compound all of the top ten drivers will start the race on), Hamilton's average lap time was 1.3s quicker than Leclerc's. But there is some hope from Ferrari that the gains made overnight on one-lap pace will also have an impact over the 61 laps of Sunday.
"Our race pace was worse [than Mercedes] yesterday," Vettel said. "But I think we were able to extract quite a bit more from the car today, so let's hope tomorrow is more like today."
However, there is also a school of thought that says a car that is fast over one lap in Singapore is not necessarily fast over a race distance.
"Obviously, if you are fast on one lap you have to have the heat in the tyres for this one lap, and that's something that can bite you on a race distance," Wolff said on Saturday evening. "Having said that, once you are in front, you have a decent opportunity to manage the pace. So I'd rather be on pole with a slightly compromised car than have a great race car but not be on pole."
Meanwhile, Leclerc remains wary of getting ahead of himself after only just coming out ahead in two monster fights for victory with Hamilton in Spa and Monza.
"It feels great [to secure pole], but yeah, you enjoy it for a very short time qualifying as then you need to focus on the race and there are no points for pole, which is a shame," he said. "It's great, to see we are on pole on a track where we expected to struggle, but on the other hand, me personally, I'm just focusing on the race now and I'm very happy if I will be in the same position tomorrow."
Does qualifying really need to change?
Ask Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel what they think about changing the current qualifying format to a reverse grid race. Go on, we dare you!
After qualifying in Singapore, the pair completely dismissed the concept -- one that is currently being investigated by the FIA and Formula One -- claiming it's not the right way forward.
Hamilton and Vettel united in belief that F1's reverse grid idea is "complete B.S."https://t.co/JmUkBiH3bx— ESPN F1 (@ESPNF1) September 21, 2019
The current proposal is that the championship order would determine the grid for a 25-lap qualifying race, with the resulting order being how the 20 drivers line up for the actual grand prix on Sunday.
Qualifying in Singapore might have only been one session, but what an enthralling session it was. There were five drivers from three teams all in realistic contention for pole position, and in the end, the top three were split by just 0.220s.
With Hamilton splitting the Ferraris and Max Verstappen starting just behind, it's ensured a must-watch race.
Formula One is certainly far from perfect at the moment, but qualifying might be the one area worth leaving alone .. at least for now.