Ferrari’s Leclerc set for Saudi Arabian GP grid penalty

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco walks back to the pit lane after his car stalled in action during the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir circuit, Sunday, March 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Charles Leclerc will start this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix with a grid penalty after Ferrari used a third electronics control unit on the car’s engine, the Formula One team said Wednesday.

Teams are only allowed two electronics control units per season, and using a third ECU incurs a 10-place grid penalty. Leclerc could also drop further down the grid for Sunday’s race in Jeddah if other engine parts are changed.

Ferrari was hit with engine trouble at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on March 5. There was an issue with the ECU before the race and a problem with the replacement part caused his retirement when he lost power on Lap 40 of 57.

“We found the cause of the issue that stopped Charles in Sakhir and will use the third (E)CU on his car, which means that we will take a grid penalty,” Ferrari team principal Frédéric Vasseur said in a team statement. “We came away from the Grand Prix in Bahrain with a first picture of the strengths and weaknesses of our car and useful pointers for making progress.”

Leclerc was in third place at the time behind the Red Bull cars of Sergio Perez and two-time defending F1 champion Max Verstappen, who won the race from pole position.

Leclerc qualified for the Bahrain GP in third place ahead of his Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. — who finished the race in fourth place.

Retiring was a bitter blow for Leclerc given last year’s widespread problems at Ferrari. After opening 2022 with two wins in three races, he finished nearly 150 points adrift of Verstappen and just held onto second place by three points from Perez after winning only one more race.

Engine reliability problems forced Leclerc to retire when leading at the Azerbaijan GP and the Spanish Grand Prix.

Poor team orders, botched pit stops and odd strategy calls also cost Leclerc wins and valuable points, prompting Ferrari to replace Mattia Binotto with Vasseur as team principal.

Vasseur believes the 6.2-kilometer (3.8-mile) Jeddah Corniche Circuit, with its longer straights, high-speed corners and less tire degradation, will suit Ferrari’s strengths this weekend.

“The Saudi Arabian track is very different to Bahrain in terms of layout and track surface, and top speed is particularly important. I’m confident that we can have a better weekend here,” Vasseur said. “Comparing the SF-23’s qualifying and race performance, there’s still some room to improve our Sunday performance. We are working well as a team to extract the maximum from our package both in terms of drivability and reliability.”