Lewis Hamilton took a big step in his attempts to wrap up a fifth world title at the Circuit of the Americas thus weekend by fending off the revived Ferraris to take his ninth pole position of the season.
In an intense qualifying battle in Austin, the Mercedes man edged ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, beating them both by less than one tenth of a second.
Vettel’s punishment is two-fold; not only does he miss out on the pole position bragging rights, he will start the race in fifth place after the application of a three-place grid penalty he picked up in practice.
He now must rely on team-mate Raikkonen – who is the only driver in the top five to start on the ultrasoft tyres – to disrupt the Mercedes at the start of the race.
“It’s was pretty close. It’s a shame when you miss out by such little time – I think six hundredths – you can always debate whether you had more in you, but I was pretty happy with the laps that I had,” said Vettel.
“I think it was quite tricky to get everything together. Obviously it’s been dry today and better for us, but the wind I think was quite tricky at times, but it was the same for everyone.
“I think given the last couple of weeks that we’ve had I think we’re back in range.”
Valtteri Bottas was three tenths behind in fourth, whilst Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was a distant fifth place. His team-mate, Max Verstappen, suffered from suspension problems and wound up fifteenth in the session.
Racing Point Force India’s Esteban Ocon took sixth ahead of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Haas’ Romain Grosjean.
Qualifying Session One
The Mercedes of Hamilton and Bottas set the pace in Q1, followed by Vettel and Raikkonen.
The two Red Bulls of Ricciardo and Verstappen easily made it through to Q2, but the Dutchman sustained rear suspension damage over the kerbs, meaning he would take no further part in the session.
Despite having back-of-the-grid penalties this weekend, both Toro Rossos progressed, with Pierre Gasly going seventh quickest and Brendon Hartley’s lap in the dying moments putting the New Zealander through in fifteenth.
Eliminated at the first hurdle were McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, the Williams duo of Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson and the second McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne.
Qualifying Session Two
As had been the case for many of the races this season, the top teams decided to send their cars out on the mid-range tyre, in order to start the race on a less degradable compound.
Hamilton, Bottas, Vettel and Ricciardo all completed laps – and progressed into Q3 – on the supersoft tyres, whilst Raikkonen set the fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tyres, giving Ferrari a split strategy for the race.
In a very tight battle in the midfield, Renault’s Carlos Sainz narrowly missed out on Q3 progression (by two 0.002 of a second!) to team-mate Nico Hulkenberg and was the first of the eliminated drivers.
Joining him early in the press pen were Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, along with three drivers who decided to/couldn’t set a time; Gasly, Hartley and Verstappen.
Qualifying Session Three
The final part of qualifying became the tense contest that everybody had hoped to see between Mercedes and Ferrari, and Hamilton dealt the first blow with a 1:32.567 to lead Vettel and Bottas by little over one tenth of a second.
Undeterred, Ferrari fought back, with Raikkonen briefly going fastest before Hamilton lowered the benchmark once again with a 1:32.237.
However, Vettel brought the challenge to Mercedes and set the fastest first sector. The pair were evenly matched in the second sector, but a better final sector for the Briton put Hamilton on pole position, beating his rival by just 0.061 of a second.
Raikkonen’s time was only nine thousandths slower than Vettel, whilst Bottas’ challenge fell away.
Ricciardo was some way off the pace, and Ocon took the ‘best of the rest’ accolade for Racing Point Force India, narrowly beating Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean.
UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX, Qualifying
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m32.237s
2 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m32.298s 0.061s
3 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m32.307s 0.070s
4 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1m32.616s 0.299s
5 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull/Renault 1m33.494s 1.257s
6 Esteban Ocon Force India/Mercedes 1m34.145s 1.908s
7 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 1m34.215s 1.978s
8 Romain Grosjean Haas/Ferrari 1m34.250s 2.013s
9 Charles Leclerc Sauber/Ferrari 1m34.420s 2.183s
10 Sergio Perez Force India/Mercedes 1m34.594s 2.357s
11 Carlos Sainz Renault 1m34.566s
12 Kevin Magnussen Haas/Ferrari 1m34.732s
13 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso/Honda No time
14 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso/Honda No time
15 Max Verstappen Red Bull/Renault No time
16 Fernando Alonso McLaren/Renault 1m35.294s
17 Sergey Sirotkin Williams/Mercedes 1m35.362s
18 Lance Stroll Williams/Mercedes 1m35.480s
19 Marcus Ericsson Sauber/Ferrari 1m35.536s
20 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren/Renault 1m35.735s
By: Luke Murphy
All images: Motorsport Images
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