Max Verstappen responded to a bold lap from title rival Lewis Hamilton to take pole position at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas in front of an ecstatic 120,000 sell-out crowd.
Verstappen looked quick in final practice – his Red Bull team appearing to have made big gains overnight – and carried that through to qualifying, where he absorbed pressure from Hamilton to take pole with a 1:32.910s.
Mercedes came to Austin having taken every pole during the hybrid turbo era, which began in 2014, but they looked to have lost their edge early in qualifying, with Hamilton 0.399s off the pace in Q2.
Somehow, Hamilton found more pace in the final runs of Q3, and was a quarter of a second up after two sectors, but lost time in the third, and while he took provisional pole by a fraction, Verstappen was running quicker behind him.
Despite light rain starting to fall in the final few seconds, Verstappen kept his foot in and carried the momentum through the final sequence of corners to take pole, with his team mate Sergio Perez third.
The second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas was fourth, however he’ll drop to ninth courtesy of a five-place grid penalty for exceeding his engine allocation. That’ll promote Charles Leclerc one place to fourth, the Ferrari driver edging out team mate Carlos Sainz.
Daniel Ricciardo was the leading McLaren in eighth, ahead of team mate Lando Norris, with AlphaTauri duo Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda closing out the top 10.
Daniel Ricciardo, fresh from having taken his hero Dale Earnhardt’s iconic 1984 Nascar for a spin earlier in the day, set the early pace, from Verstappen and Norris, as the Mercedes duo seemed to lack the pace to contend at the sharp end.
Both Red Bulls did cool down laps before going again, with Verstappen pumping in the quickest time, 0.017s ahead of Perez, who has kept his team mate honest all weekend.
Mercedes sent Hamilton and Bottas out for a second run on used soft tyres and while they improved, they remained outside the top five. And with just a few moments to go, Leclerc gave Ferrari P1 by 0.19s as the track ramped up.
At the other end of the classification, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen were in the drop zone. Alonso got himself out with his final lap, and that demoted Lance Stroll, who had a lap deleted earlier in the session and could not react.
He was joined in the drop zone by Nicholas Latifi, Raikkonen, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin – with Antonio Giovinazzi surviving a spin on his final lap to become the only Alfa Romeo to progress into the next segment of qualifying.
Knocked out: Stroll, Latifi, Raikkonen, Schumacher, Mazepin
Medium tyres were the order of the day for Mercedes and Red Bull, with teams keen to avoid starting the race on the soft tyre that isn’t expected to last very long in race conditions.
Verstappen set a blistering pace to top the charts, 0.333s quicker than Hamilton, with Norris, Leclerc, Bottas and Sainz completing the top six. Perez and Ricciardo put themselves under pressure after exceeding track limits which triggered the deletion of their lap times.
They went again, with Perez slotting into seventh and Ricciardo ninth, pushing Tsunoda into the drop zone. But the Japanese driver was already on a lap that looked strong, and he squeaked into the final segment of qualifying for the second straight race in 10th.
That left Esteban Ocon – who had a tow from Alonso – out in 11th, with Vettel completing just one run to end up 12th. He’ll be heading to the back of the grid, though, courtesy of a suite of penalties for engine component changes.
Giovinazzi was 13th, ahead of Alonso – who like Vettel will start from the back because of engine penalties – and Russell, who had his final lap deleted for exceeding track limits.
Knocked out: Ocon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Alonso, Russell
Mercedes headed out early doors, with Bottas taking provisional pole, 0.089s quicker than Hamilton, with Norris slotting into third.
But Perez’s first run was enough to put him top of the pile, 0.19s ahead of Verstappen, as Red Bull commanded the front row with one final run to go.
Hamilton found something extra on his second attempt and was on course to set Verstappen a challenging target. But he lost two tenths in the final sector and only scraped into P1.
Verstappen seized his opportunity to take his fourth pole position in six races, ninth of the season and Red Bull’s first front row start in Austin since 2013, with his title rival lining up alongside him in second for the seventh time this season.
Perez secured only his third top-three start of 2021, having missed out on the front row by just 0.015s, with Leclerc securing back-to-back top four starts courtesy of his promotion following Bottas’ penalty.
With Sainz promoted to fifth, Ferrari will have two cars in the top five on the grid for the first time since Baku, 11 races ago.
The United States Grand Prix kicks off at 14:00 local time, which is 20:00 GMT. Verstappen has an eight-metre advantage over Hamilton, but his title rival has the inside line heading into Turn 1. Who will come out on top?