The Circuit of The Americas has been kind to Lewis Hamilton in recent years, but it was his Mercedes team mate and the only driver who can stop him winning a sixth world crown, Valtteri Bottas, who took pole position for Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in nail-biting fashion.
It was Hamilton who showed the most impressive pace over one lap in Friday practice, but the five-time world champion made a mistake on his final run in the middle sector, forcing him out of contention for pole position and leaving him a distant fifth.
As it turned out, no one improved their position on the final runs, meaning Bottas’s impressive opening gambit was enough to secure a first pole at COTA and the 11th of his F1 career. But he finished just 0.012s ahead of the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.
Max Verstappen made it three different teams in the top three positions, with the Dutchman heading up the second row for Red Bull, just 0.067s off the pace as Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc – who has been on pole in five of the last six races – ended up fourth.
Alex Albon secured his third consecutive top-six finish for Red Bull, with Carlos Sainz finishing best of the rest in seventh and taking the lead in his qualifying head-to-head with McLaren team mate Lando Norris 10-9, as he beat the Briton by a position.
Daniel Ricciardo – who opted for only one run in Q3 – was the leading Renault in ninth as Pierre Gasly rounded out the top 10 for Toro Rosso having made it three Honda-powered cars in the pole position shoot-out.
Overall, it wasn’t the ideal day for Hamilton, the Briton usually a menace around Austin, but he’s still in a strong position for Sunday, considering he only needs an eighth-place finish or better to secure a historic sixth world championship.
After a bitterly cold day for Friday practice, the conditions mercifully improved for Saturday, with bright skies and ambient temperatures hovering around 18 degrees Celsius.
Vettel made life slightly trickier for himself by locking up heavily at Turn 1 on his first flying lap, but he easily put himself through on his next timed lap, on the soft tyres, as he clocked the sixth-quickest time.
Hamilton was initially the man to beat, fractionally edging out Verstappen by 0.095s, with Bottas – the only driver who can stop Hamilton winning a sixth crown – 0.2s further back. But the timesheets were torn up when Lando Norris had a second run late in the session and shot to the top of the pile in the McLaren.
Pierre Gasly hauled himself out of the drop zone in the closing stages to end up fourth quickest – but the Alfa Romeos couldn’t follow suit. Antonio Giovinazzi out-qualified team mate Kimi Raikkonen by one place as he ended up 16th, while George Russell finished ahead of a Racing Point, with Sergio Perez having different priorities as he is already condemned to a pit-lane start courtesy of missing the weighbridge in Friday practice.
Knocked out: Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Russell, Perez, Kubica
Mercedes and Ferrari plus Red Bull’s Verstappen opted to change things up and head out on the medium tyre, in a bid to start the race on that rubber, while the rest of the field stuck with the quicker, less durable soft.
Albon comfortably went quickest, with Hamilton the fastest of the medium runners in second. But it was beautifully tight, with Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas and Vettel separated by just 0.15s.
For the second runs, everyone headed out on softs, apart from the Ferrari duo of Leclerc and Vettel, who opted for mediums. The duo both improved, with Leclerc going fastest by 0.022s from Vettel.
Hamilton set the best middle sector of all on the soft, but backed off to ensure he didn’t improve so he could start on the medium. Bottas and Verstappen did the same, which means both Mercedes and Ferraris plus Verstappen will start on the mediums. The rest of the top 10 will start on the softs.
Nico Hulkenberg missed out by half a tenth for Renault, but will be the best-placed driver with free tyre choice in 11th. Haas’s Kevin Magnussen, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat – who had his last time deleted for exceeding track limits – Racing Point’s Lance Stroll and Haas’s Romain Grosjean all got the boot.
Knocked out: Hulkenberg, Magnussen, Kvyat, Stroll, Grosjean
Bottas knitted everything together brilliantly on his opening flying lap, the Finn pipping Vettel by 0.012s, but finishing nearly 0.3s clear of team mate Hamilton, after the championship leader had a scrappy lap.
Verstappen made an error, too, with a lock-up at Turn 1 to slot into third, a fraction ahead of third, with Sainz the best of the rest in seventh – 0.8s off the pace. The top nine headed back to the pits, where Ricciardo was sat as he only planned one run, to fit new tyres.
As the second runs got under way, there were a flurry of personal bests in the first sector, but things started to tail off as their respective laps went on, with no one able to make enough of a gain to change the overall order at the sharp end of the field.
That meant Bottas took pole by the smallest margin in COTA history, having never previously had the pace to start on the front row at the venue. Incidentally it was Mercedes’ 200th front row start, while pole gives Bottas a chance to improve on his record of having won just three races from 10 P1 starts.
Vettel was edged into second, with Verstappen securing his best US GP start in third – his best grid slot since Hungary, seven races ago. In contrast, Leclerc fails to start on the front row for the first time in seven races. Hamilton will start off the front row in the USA for only the second time in his career.
Lights go out tomorrow at 19:10 GMT for the United States Grand Prix. Can Ferrari or Red Bull prevent Valtteri Bottas from converting this pole into victory and will Lewis Hamilton clinch his sixth World Championship? We’ll find out over 56 laps at the Circuit of the Americas.