Bottas busts record to delay Hamilton title

Valtteri Bottas kept alive his hopes of delaying Lewis Hamilton’s sixth drivers’ world championship celebrations by claiming pole position with a record lap on Saturday in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix.

The Finn, who has to win Sunday’s race and hope his Mercedes teammate finishes outside the top eight to keep the championship alive, clocked a best lap in one minute and 32.029 seconds to outpace second-placed Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari by 0.012 seconds.

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Hamilton is now without a pole since the German Grand Prix in July.

For Bottas, it was a first pole in the United States, his fifth this season and the 11th of his career, his best lap on his first run in Q3 remaining fast enough to put him on the prime starting spot.

Alex Albon was sixth in the second Red Bull ahead of the two McLarens of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris with Daniel Ricciardo ninth for Renault and Pierre Gasly 10th for Toro Rosso.

“I’m really happy about that and it was a nice lap — and to get those kind of laps on a track like this is a good feeling,” said Bottas.

“On my last lap, I was losing grip overall so I am glad nobody improved in the end on the second runs. It was tricky for me yesterday (Friday so I was do the work today and find what I needed in Q3.”

Hamilton said it was his own fault that he qualified only fifth on the grid.

Disappointed in his own performance after struggling to produce a complete lap at his best, the world champion-elect said he had no-one to blame, but himself.

“It’s nothing to do with the car. I just didn’t manage to put the laps together today and the car clearly had the capability to be on the front row,” Hamilton said.

“It was just me, not the car, but I can still do it. It was my fault and I will do all I can to rectify it. Honestly, I am not thinking about it now — I’m just trying to digest what’s happened and to reflect on it.”

In significantly warmer conditions, prompting many to discard jackets and coats, Leclerc was keen to make an early entry impression in Q1 after missing the morning session following an engine failure.

He posted an early marker lap before Norris took top spot briefly ahead of a reinvigorated Hamilton, who went fastest in 1:33.454.

Verstappen, still itching with frustration after being stripped of pole in Mexico a week earlier, was second-quickest for Red Bull, ahead of Bottas, in the second Mercedes.

The Finn, unflappable as ever, could only keep his title bid alive by winning and hoping for a rare flop, outside the top eight, from his teammate.

“We think the track has improved, so we’ll take another lap,” said Bottas’s engineer as he and Hamilton stayed out to gain more understanding of the track in the changing conditions.

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Unexpectedly, as they did so, Norris topped the Q1 times while out went Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen and the two Williams men, George Russell and Robert Kubica, split by Racing Point’s Sergio Perez.

The Mexican will start from the pit-lane on Sunday after being penalised for a weighbridge transgression on Friday.

The Mercedes men, both on medium compound tyres, were first out for Q2 with the Ferraris following on the same rubber.

Hamilton set the pace ahead of Bottas until Red Bull’s Verstappen, on mediums, and Albon, on softs, went third and first, sandwiching Hamilton.

Albon’s lap in 1:32.898 put him within reach of Hamilton’s 2018 qualifying lap record and the top six were separated by only three-tenths of a second before their second flying runs.

Leclerc went top ahead of Ferrari teammate Vettel to lead the way into the top ten shootout while out went Daniil Kvyat of Toro Rosso, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, Kevin Magnussen of Haas, Lance Stroll of Racing Point and Romain Grosjean in the second Haas.

Along with Verstappen, both Magnussen and Sainz were also qualifying to start their 100th Grand Prix race.

In Q3, Bottas smashed Hamilton’s qualifying record in 1:32.029 on his first run to lead Vettel, Verstappen and Leclerc with the Briton back in fifth, three-tenths adrift.

—AFP