Charles Leclerc thought he was on for a podium throughout the Japanese Grand Prix after being confused by a slowing Red Bull that he mistook for Max Verstappen.

Verstappen led from pole position and comfortably beat the two McLaren drivers at Suzuka, with Leclerc finishing seven seconds adrift of Oscar Piastri in fourth place. However, after overtaking a slow Red Bull during a Virtual Safety Car period – the ailing Sergio Perez who was returning to the p its – Leclerc thought he’d passed Verstappen and was in the top three.

“I didn’t even follow what Max did because I saw him stopping at the safety car or after the safety car – I don’t know what happened there and I thought he wasn’t in the race anymore,” Leclerc said. “So I thought I was doing a podium until the last lap where I actually looked at the board and I was P4!

“They were really strong – Max of course, we expected him to be strong. We expected Checo also, but I don’t know what happened for him and the two McLarens, too.”

Still believing he had passed Verstappen at one stage, a confused Leclerc had to be told during media interviews that it was Perez who had been going slowly.

“No, (Verstappen) slowed down at one point no? Exit of Turn 14. I th ink it was the VSC yeah, he basically stopped on the left and we all overtook him…

“Ohhh right, OK,” he added when informed it was Perez. “That’s what it was I thought Max was out of the race at that moment it was just confusing for me.”

While the McLaren drivers had an advantage over Ferrari all weekend in Japan, Leclerc says there are still positives to take out of the weekend as it highlights deficits that need addressing.

“McLaren was super strong and they also had a very low tire management. But I think another weekend like this is good in a way, because it confirms exactly what we understood in the last few races,” he said,

“Sector 1 is definitely one of our main weaknesses, if you look compared to McLaren that’s where most of the time is lost. And on that we will be working on that for the for the rest of the season for next year.”