Lewis Hamilton struck a downbeat note after he qualified in second place behind Max Verstappen, the championship leader, for Sunday’s US Grand Prix.
In a dramatic climax to the session on Saturday, the Red Bull driver sealed the fastest lap, 0.2sec ahead of Hamilton, to end a streak of six successive pole positions for Mercedes at the track in Texas.
Verstappen taking pole could signal a momentum shift after Mercedes had arrived in the US buoyed by their improving pace, albeit with their confidence tempered by concerns about engine reliability.
“It started off good, felt pretty good through [the first practice session], then kind of bit by bit they’ve got faster and I don’t know if we’ve got slower, but yeah, it’s been a real struggle compared to normal here,” Hamilton said. “Part of it’s probably the heat on the tyres which I’m sure is affecting everyone, but yeah, it’s been a challenge.”
Verstappen sounded cautiously optimistic after claiming his ninth pole position of the season, saying he thinks his Red Bull team are moving in the right direction, even if “I wasn’t very happy yesterday and I wasn’t entirely happy today”. His teammate, Sergio Pérez, qualified in third place.
The Dutchman, yet to win a world title, is six points ahead of Hamilton, who has seven championships, with six races remaining. Qualifying in the top two is auspicious: for all the overtaking opportunities on a track known for its long straights as well as a variety of corners, only a driver starting on the front row has ever won here. Hamilton finished second in 2019 – and secured his sixth world title – after qualifying in fifth.
“We are on the front row and everyone’s expecting a great race, and that’s what we expect as drivers,” Verstappen said after securing pole position.
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The circuit on the outskirts of Austin is typically a happy hunting ground for Mercedes; Hamilton has won five of the eight F1 races at the track, his most recent victory coming in 2017. The event was not held in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Conditions were not easy, with a track temperature of 37C and the surface uneven. Several drivers have noted the track’s bumpiness. Relations between the title contenders are also less than smooth. Verstappen called Hamilton a “stupid idiot” and extended a middle finger at his rival after the pair almost touched wheels during Friday’s practice. The vulgar vignette was a sign of the intensity of the battle. The 24-year-old was in a much better mood when talking with his team over the radio after Saturday’s session.
“It’s all fun and games,” Hamilton said. “Have fun [during the race], give it everything as you would expect.” A scrap for the lead seems in store from the start, which may once again make the atmosphere less cordial, though Hamilton added: “I don’t think it’s all decided on turn one.”
A sold-out crowd of 360,000 is expected over the three-day weekend. That can partly be ascribed to pent-up enthusiasm after the two-year wait. Leading figures, including Hamilton, also believe that the popularity of the Netflix documentary, Formula 1: Drive to Survive, has helped sell the sport in the US.
While Verstappen is no fan – he described some of the rivalry narratives as “faked” – the series premiered in 2019 and a fourth season is planned to stream in 2022, when Miami is set to join Austin on the calendar.
Zak Brown, the McLaren chief executive, said: “Netflix has been outstanding for Formula One. It’s driven a younger fanbase, it’s driven a much larger fanbase, it’s really had an impact in America.”
Even before the circus pitches its tent in southern Florida next May, the growing buzz is inspiring talk that the US should be rewarded with a third race before long. “Miami I think will be the hottest ticket in Formula One next year,” Brown said.
The idea has some logic given the size of the country, its population of 330 million and F1’s American ownership in the shape of Liberty Media. However, there would be practical problems to surmount. “We’ve got some great racetracks,” said the Los Angeles-born Brown. “But I don’t think any of them currently, with their current construction, could handle a Formula One race, either for safety or length of circuit.”