Charles Leclerc thought he had Suzuka podium after mistaking Sergio Perez for Max Verstappen

SUZUKA, Japan -- Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc thought he was on his way to a podium at the Japanese Grand Prix after mistaking Sergio Perez's retiring Red Bull for that of race-winner Max Verstappen.

Leclerc, who finished fourth just over seven seconds behind Oscar Piastri's McLaren in third, only realised he was not in a podium position on the final lap of the race.

Speaking to media at Suzuka after the chequered flag, Leclerc still seemed confused about the race, apparently in the belief he had passed Verstappen on lap 14 when he had in fact lapped Perez.

Perez's Red Bull, which was involved in a first lap collision with Lewis Hamilton and later retired after a second collision with Kevin Magnussen, entered the pits at the end of lap 14 during a Virtual Safety Car period to retire the car, although he did emerge again later in the race to serve a penalty.

"I saw Max stopping at the Virtual 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 as he continued to confuse Verstappen with Perez.

"So I thought I was doing a podium until the last lap where I actually looked at the board and I was P4, but yeah, I mean, there were really strong.

"Max of course, we expected him to be strong. We expected Checo [Perez] also, but I don't know what happened for him and the two McLarens, too."

Asked if he thought he'd seen Verstappen slow on one of the big screens around the track, Leclerc added: "No, he slowed down at one point no? Exit of turn 14.

"I think it was the VSC, he basically stopped on the left and we all overtook him."

When it was pointed out to Leclerc that it was in fact Perez who he passed on lap 14, the penny dropped.

"Oh right okay. That's what it was. I thought Max was out of the race at that moment it was just confusing for me."