Top four qualifiers are separated by just a tenth of a second ahead of the 2019 US Grand Prix: Valtteri Bottas starts on pole but Lewis Hamilton is only fifth
Photo: Motorsport Images
For the first time since Budapest in August, a car other than a Ferrari will start a Grand Prix from pole position, after a close-run US Grand Prix qualifying session.
Mercedes has stopped the rot and, this being Austin, where Lewis Hamilton was gunning for his fourth consecutive pole and is chasing his fifth US win in the last six, it’s perhaps not wholly surprising.
But wait. It’s not the six-time champion elect’s silver machine that will head the pack in that uphill dash into the wide expanses of Turn One. It’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas, the man striving to keep the championship alive, who produced a great first Q3 run to ace the field on what will be his first front-row start at Circuit of the Americas.
The third row is not where you’d choose to start, with that wide Turn One entry encouraging a gung-ho approach from the midfield
“It was a really good lap,” Valtteri said, “but then on my second run there just seemed to be a little less grip and I saw that I was already a tenth or two down in sector one.”
After the opening day Hamilton had actually looked the likelier of the two to offer up the biggest challenge to Ferrari and Max Verstappen, with strong one-lap and race pace, although his ultimate lap time was flattered by a handy tow.
When it mattered though, Lewis couldn’t quite get it together in qualifying. A three-tenths gap to Bottas is unusual; between them are both Ferraris and Verstappen.
Eighth place in the race will clinch that sixth title for Hamilton but he’s not thinking about that. “I’m still trying to digest what just happened,” he said. “I didn’t pull the laps out today and, clearly, the car had the capability. I just didn’t do it.”
While Toto Wolff talked about working something with strategy for Hamilton, the reality is that there’s no way that he won’t have the pace to collect the necessary points, no matter what Bottas does in the race.
More worryingly though, the third row is not where you’d choose to start in Austin, with that wide Turn One entry and its multiple lines encouraging a gung-ho approach from the midfield. On top of that, while the four cars ahead of Lewis all start on the same medium compound Pirelli, Alex Albon’s sixth-placed Red Bull goes to the grid on the red-walled soft and so, in theory, may get a better launch.
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Hamilton faces a tough run into Turn One from his fifth-place grid position Photo: Motorsport Images
But Lewis fans shouldn’t panic too much. A 30-race point-scoring streak surely means that he’s far less likely to drop the ball than the England rugby team.
Formula 1 is enjoying a purple patch at the moment, with just a tenth of a second separating the first four cars on the Austin grid! Joining Bottas on the front row, just two hundredths behind pole, is Sebastian Vettel, who pipped Verstappen’s Red Bull by five-hundredths and team-mate Charles Leclerc by nine-hundredths.
“It’s really exciting that it’s all so close,” Vettel smiled. “I thought I had a bit more for my second run, but no. Let’s see if I can get a good start and see where it takes us.”
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Verstappen is also optimistic about his race chances. He and Leclerc were the only men among the top six qualifiers to find time on their second Q3 runs.
“For us, on this kind of track, to be that competitive is a really good result. We’re normally comparatively more competitive for race pace, so I’m happy with that.”
For Leclerc, fourth is not what he wanted but, in the circumstances, was a decent outcome. The bumpiness of the Austin surface has been a big topic since the cars left the pit lane first thing Friday morning and one of its effects was to initiate a throttle problem that cost the Ferrari driver much of FP1. After his race averages were around 0.4sec behind Hamilton’s in FP2, he lost FP3 to an oil leak which required reversion to an older engine. No penalty, therefore, but perhaps a slight performance drop.
“I think the track conditions were slower on the second Q3 run,” said Leclerc, “I don’t really know why, but the fact that I improved shows that I was a bit lacking on my first run and didn’t get up to speed quickly enough.”
Oil leak forced an engine change for Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari Photo: Motorsport Images
He’d also been reflecting on Mexico which, in hindsight, he could have won had Ferrari risked a one-stopper from the lead, thereby denying Hamilton track position.
Team principal Mattia Binotto admitted that the team could have taken a risk and been a bit racier and also conceded that they need to improve their tyre modelling. But, rather than criticise the team for a third race in the past four to get away from him, Leclerc laid the blame at his own door.
“I’ve not been perfect, especially in races,” he said, “but in Mexico I learned quite a lot and have a clear idea of what to try here. In Mexico, there was more I could have done to help the team make a better decision. It’s all part of the learning process and I need to be on top of it as soon as possible.”
Albon enjoyed the challenge of Austin but not his final Q3 run, which saw him end up 0.45sec behind team-mate Verstappen’s second-row time.
“I made a mistake and ran wide when I was three-tenths up. Without that I think I could have been ahead of Lewis. But starting on softs should be good if I can avoid any carnage.”
Carlos Sainz again managed to qualify best-of-the-rest in seventh position, simultaneously claiming bragging rights by going 10-9 ahead in his intra-team battle with team-mate Lando Norris. McLaren continues to progress with Sainz’s lap only 0.3sec shy of Albon’s ‘big three’ time.
Norris did a stunning job to set third quickest time in FP3 on Saturday morning but, when the chips were down, was three tenths behind Sainz.
He was a similar margin clear of Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault and the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly — who put in an impressive lap — which completed the top 10.
Sainz and McLaren best of the rest once more Photo: Motorsport Images
Interestingly, both Sainz and Norris alluded to the McLaren performance being influenced by the wind direction.
“We are much quicker than last year (1.75sec) and have really made progress. When the wind is from the north the car really switched on, but tomorrow it switches to the south, so let’s hope the race doesn’t go like Mexico.”
That Mexico race was an outlier in that Sainz bailed out of a hard tyre stint after just 21 laps when he found his car gripless, a phenomenon he put down to aero losses, so tomorrow will be interesting.
There are a few things we should know about Lewis Hamilton by now. He never gives up, he makes precious few errors and is a relentless racer.
You feel uneasy betting against him in any racing situation, particular a race that involves Austin. And yet, somehow, you just feel that winning from fifth on the grid here may be a bridge too far. The race favourite? It’s too close to call but Verstappen might take some stopping.
Verstappen lurking in third: could he be celebrating on Sunday? Photo: Motorsport Images
United States Grand Prix qualifying results
|1||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes||1min 32.029sec|
|2||Sebastian Vettel||Ferrari||1min 32.041sec|
|3||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||1min 32.096sec|
|4||Charles Leclerc||Ferrari||1min 32.137sec|
|5||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||1min 32.321sec|
|6||Alexander Albon||Red Bull||1min 32.548sec|
|7||Carlos Sainz||McLaren||1min 32.847sec|
|8||Lando Norris||McLaren||1min 33.175sec|
|9||Daniel Ricciardo||Renault||1min 33.488sec|
|10||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso||1min 33.601sec|
|11||Nico Hülkenberg||Renault||1min 33.815sec|
|12||Kevin Magnussen||Haas||1min 33.979sec|
|13||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso||1min 33.989sec|
|14||Lance Stroll||Racing Point||1min 34.100sec|
|15||Romain Grosjean||Haas||1min 34.158sec|
|16||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||1min 34.226sec|
|17||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||1min 34.369sec|
|18||George Russell||Williams||1min 35.372sec|
|19||Sergio Perez||Racing Point||1min 35.808sec*|
|20||Robert Kubica||Williams||1min 35.889sec|
*Starts from the pitlane after a penalty for ignoring a weighbridge call