QUALIFYING: Hamilton pinches US pole with Vettel to start fifth
Mercedes have owned the Circuit of The Americas in recent years and they just about carried that performance advantage into this year’s edition on Saturday, with Lewis Hamilton putting himself in the box seat to clinch a fifth world title with a brilliant pole position.
Championship rival Sebastian Vettel was a very close second, but he will start fifth, courtesy of a three-place grid penalty for failing to slow sufficiently for a red flag during free practice earlier in the weekend.
Hamilton judged qualifying impressively once more, setting a strong banker lap with his first Q3 effort and then improving on his second run to take an 81st pole position and third consecutive pole at Austin. Worryingly for his rivals, Hamilton has always won the United States Grand Prix when starting on the front row.
Kimi Raikkonen was third quickest, but he’ll be promoted to the front row courtesy of his Ferrari team mate’s grid penalty, while Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo will also be promoted one place for Sunday. Intriguingly, Raikkonen will start on the ultrasoft tyres, with Hamilton and Vettel on the supersofts, and that could give the Finn more grip off the line and subsequently provide a great battle for the lead into the uphill Turn 1.
Esteban Ocon, currently without a seat for 2019, earned the accolade of best of the rest in the Force India, a fraction ahead of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, with Haas's Romain Grosjean, Sauber's Charles Leclerc and Force India's Sergio Perez completing the top 10 in Texas.
Q1 – Mercedes dominate as Verstappen hits trouble
Ferrari may have set the pace when teams headed out in the dry for the first time in FP3, but Mercedes upped their game in the first segment of qualifying with Hamilton powering to the top of the timesheets, nearly four-tenths of a second clear of team mate Bottas.
Championship leader Hamilton was so relaxed, he had time to hug actor Matthew McConaughey after getting out of the car. His title rival Vettel was 0.4s back in the Ferrari, with the German facing a battle to keep the championship alive going to Mexico, particularly given he will have the aforementioned penalty.
McLaren's Fernando Alonso was the highest profile driver to fail to make it through, the Spaniard getting knocked out at the death courtesy of a fine lap from Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley. His team mate Pierre Gasly looked very quick, finishing seventh quickest overall as Honda’s latest spec power unit stretched its legs.
Unfortunately, both Toro Rossos will start from the back of the grid after Honda opted to fit fresh engines to both cars, triggering grid penalties. There wasn’t much luck for Max Verstappen in their sister team Red Bull, with the Dutchman limping back to the pits with suspected rear suspension damage - thought to be the result of a heavy kerb impact - which ended his participation for the day.
Williams duo Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne were also eliminated. It was the 23rd consecutive time Vandoorne has been out-qualified by his team mate and the 11th straight race he has failed to make it into Q2.
Q2 – Ferrari show their hand to edge Mercedes
While Mercedes sent both drivers out on the supersoft tyres for the first runs, Ferrari opted to split strategies for the race, with Raikkonen taking the ultrasofts and Vettel following his title rival by running the supersofts. Raikkonen used the softer rubber to his advantage, slotting into top spot.
Vettel was just over two-tenths slower in second, with the red cars suddenly showing a burst of pace. Hamilton did two quick laps but still ended up six-tenths of a second adrift in third, with Bottas fourth. Further back, there was a mighty effort from Leclerc, with the Sauber driver up in sixth.
The Toro Rossos didn't set a time while Verstappen didn’t run at all, with Carlos Sainz, who complained about huge oversteer in the final corner, missing out on the pole position shoot-out to Renault team mate Nico Hulkenberg by just 0.002s. However, it means the Spaniard will have a free choice of tyre compounds for Sunday’s race.
Kevin Magnussen continued his record of never having out-qualified a team mate in Austin, the Haas driver ending up 12th, with Grosjean seventh, ahead of the Force Indias of Ocon and Perez.
Q3 – Hamilton delivers again
With honours split between Mercedes and Ferrari after the first two segments of qualifying, it was perhaps unsurprising that just 0.088s separated the title rivals after the opening runs of Q3.
Hamilton was the driver in front, heading Vettel with Bottas a fraction further back in third and Raikkonen a distant fourth. The quartet headed back to the pits to tweak their set-ups and get a splash of fuel before heading back out for one more flying lap before the chequered flag.
Bottas was first to cross the line, slotting into second just 0.049s off Hamilton, but both were demoted as Raikkonen sailed to the top of the pile. Hamilton was improving, though, and he inched back ahead. Could Vettel topple his rival? No, the German missing out by just 0.061s.
The key quote
“That was close. I didn’t know how close it was going to be once we got into qualifying but obviously when we went into that last run, I knew it was quite edgy between us and it was going to require solid laps.
“The first one was decent but not good enough. Then the second one was that little bit better that enabled me to pull that out. At some races where I haven’t done a better time – I’ve had to bail out the second lap so I was very, very adamant I was going to do a better lap.” - Lewis Hamilton
The key stats
Hamilton’s pole was Mercedes’ 99th in their Formula 1 history.
Raikkonen will be on the front row for the first time in the USA since 2005 in Indianapolis, when he and 14 other cars did not start the race.
Ricciardo is fourth on the provisional grid , his best starting position since taking pole in Monaco 12 races ago.
Hulkenberg is seventh on the grid for the sixth time this season without ever starting higher.
Vettel starts fifth - he has never won from outside the top-three in his career.
Grosjean is eighth, the first ever top-10 start for Haas in their home Grand Prix.
The Frenchman made it into Q3 for an 11th consecutive race, extending his career-best run.
Seventeenth was enough for Sirotkin to clinch the 2018 qualifying head-to-head against Williams team mate Lance Stroll, the Russian out-qualifying the Canadian for the 11th time this season.
Vandoorne was the slowest qualifier for the fourth time in the last eight races, and went out in Q1 for the 11th consecutive race.
He was also out-qualified by McLaren team mate Fernando Alonso for the 23rd consecutive time.
Onboard pole lap
The United States Grand Prix starts at 1310 local time, 1810 UTC, with the weather forecast suggesting a dry race with temperature highs of 21 degrees Celsius. Will Hamilton find that eight-point advantage over Vettel and clinch that fifth world title? Or can Vettel put Ferrari back on top and take the championship fight on to Mexico? There’s only one way to find out…