AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Max Verstappen started from the pole position and cruised to his third Formula One sprint race victory of the season on Saturday at the Circuit of the Americas, a day before he’ll go for another win in a dominant season at the United States Grand Prix.
Verstappen was denied the pole position for Sunday’s race because of a rare mistake on his final lap of qualifying on Friday. But the Red Bull driver returned to the track in top form a day later and won the pole position for the 19-lap sprint race.
Verstappen has already won the season championship with 14 grand prix victories and has taken three of the five sprint races so far.
He squeezed Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into the first corner, an uphill, switchback left hander, to keep the lead out of the start.
“It was close into turn one. Charles had a little better start. I tried to make it as difficult as possible for him,” Verstappen said.
“I saw a very little gap and and tried for it,” Leclerc said. “I lost position.”
From there it was a matter of Verstappen building some space ahead of Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who had jumped Leclerc into second out of the first turn.. Hamilton is trying to catch Red Bull’s Sergio Perez for second in the drivers’ standings over the final five races of the season.
Mercedes brought what it hoped would be its last significant upgrades to the car this season. Hamilton stayed close to Verstappen for about four laps before dropping off. He still finished second, ahead of Leclerc.
Leclerc will start on pole Sunday. Hamilton will start third.
“I was trying early-on to get closer to Max, but their pace is just undeniable,” Hamilton said.
Verstappen lost the pole position for Sunday’s grand prix race because he exceeded track limits on the penultimate corner of his final lap of qualifying. He will start Sunday from sixth as he chases a record-tying 15th win this season.
“He’ll be breathing down our necks before too long,” Hamilton said.
Verstappen has won the last two races in Austin. The winner at COTA has come from the front row every year since 2012, but Verstappen has already won from sixth in Belgium and ninth in Miami this season.
After Verstappen’s mistake in qualifying, race stewards widened slightly the race lanes in three corners, including the one one Verstappen missed, for the sprint race and Sunday’s grand prix.
“Starting sixth is going to be a bit different than today. It makes it interesting and hopefully we can have a bit of fun out there,” Verstappen said “Of course, we want to win.”
TEE IT UP
Golfer Rory McIlroy visited the Alpine team garage for the first time since it was announced this week that he and Kansas City Chiefs players Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce are among several pro athletes in a team investment group.
McIIroy is hopeful he can bring more than just money to the Alpine team. He spent some time Saturday giving drivers Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly some putting tips, and figures he can offer some advice about competition.
“The first tee shot for me is nothing like being at the starting grid and knowing that you’re going to be racing 150 mph with 19 other cars,” McIlroy said. “It’s certainly not life for death in terms of what I do. But there are things like a driver loses confidence, a golfer loses confidence. How do you rebound from that? How do you bounce back from a bad qualifying session or a bad round of golf and being in the right frame of mind in getting the best out of yourself?”
The 34-year-old McIlroy also said he’d like to get a ride in an F1 car some day.
“I love cars. As I’ve gotten older and more mature, I’m not as much of a speed demon as I used to be. But I think back to how I used to drive cars in my early 20s, it’s like ’What were you doing?”
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing