Lewis Hamilton took one step closer to a fourth title with his 72nd career pole position at the Circuit of the Americas. The Briton’s path was shadowed by title rival Sebastian Vettel, however, with the Ferrari driver recovering from a tricky start to the weekend to claim a front-row berth just 0.2s behind the Mercedes driver.
After handling problems on Friday, Ferrari opted to change Vettel’s chassis overnight and in the build-up to Q3 the German began to find the rhythm that had eluded him in practice.
He couldn’t match Hamilton, whose time of 1:33.108 in Q3 confirmed him as the quickest in every session of the weekend so far, but Vettel managed to keep the title fight very much alive by carving out a half-second improvement on his opening Q3 lap to take P2 and a crucial front-row start that makes Hamilton’s quest to outscore the Ferrari man by 16 points a tall order should Vettel have an untroubled race. Third place in qualifying went to Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.
In a busy opening to Q1, which saw the bulk of the cars on track it was Force India’s Esteban Ocon who set the early pace with a lap of 1:41.980. He was soon bounced out of P1 by Valtteri Bottas on supersofts, the Finn setting a time of 1:35.309.
The traffic upset the opening run of Max Verstappen who abandoned his lap saying “it’s a big mess out there”. His engineer’s response was to tell the Red Bull driver that he had to make the next one count. And Verstappen obliged jumping to P1. He was quickly demoted to P2 by Hamilton with a lap of 1:34.899 that he then improved by seven hundredths to hold top spot.
Behind Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas was third ahead of Vettel, Renault’s Carlos Sainz, Williams’ Felipe Massa and the second Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen. The Mercedes and Ferrari drivers all set the best Q1 times on the supersoft tyres.
After the final runs a cluster of drivers battling to escape the drop zone fought their way into the 1m36.8s bracket. It was Haas’ Romain Grosjean who edged through to Q2 with a lap of 1:36.835. Seven thousands of a second behind and eliminated in P16 was Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson. It was a painful exit too for newcomer Brendon Hartley, with the New Zealander in 18th place, behind Lance Stroll, but just five hundredths of a second behind Grosjean. Also out were Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein in P19 and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen in P20.
Hamilton was again the pace in the second session, setting a first run benchmark of 1:33.560 and eventually shaving just over a tenth off that to finish ahead of team-mate Bottas with Räikkönen third ahead of Vettel and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo. Verstappen, though, made the choice to set his Q2 time on supersoft tyres ahead of his 15-place grid penalty for the race.
Hamilton maintained his grip on proceedings in the opening runs of Q3, laying a provisional claim on pole position with a time of 1:33.108. That left him 0.460 clear of second-placed team-mate Bottas, with Räikkönen third on 1:33.852. Vettel was in fourth, 0.759s behind his title rivals.
And in the final runs there was no touching the championship leader’s opening lap, though Vettel pushed the Briton hard. The Ferrari driver found over half a second on his final run to seal a front row berth, but he still ended the session 0.239s down on Hamilton’s opener.
There was a similar leap in the final runs from Ricciardo. The Red Bull Racing driver opened his Q3 account with a time of 1:34.130 to sit sixth, but in the final runs the Australian dug deep and found 0.553s to jump to the second row of the grid and fourth spot behind Bottas.
There was no such improvement for Verstappen, however. The Dutchman made a small mistake in the penultimate corner and though he made a two tenths of a second improvement over his opening time, he had to settle for sixth place behind Räikkönen.
Ocon took seventh for Force India ahead of Sainz, with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso ninth and Sergio Pérez 10th in the second Force India.