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All the shootout runners, bar Carlos Sainz Jr and Yuki Tsunoda, traversed Q2 on the medium tyres and will start Sunday’s race on the more durable rubber at the Austin track, where the final segment of qualifying did not feature any track limits controversy – after Verstappen and Hamilton had lost times that would have led FP3.
Perez was the pacesetter in final practice and he somewhat stunned Verstappen to lead the way for Red Bull after the first runs in Q3 on a 1m33.180s – the Mexican keeping his soft tyres alive best of the leading runners to set the fastest time of Q3 in the final sector.
But he was shuffled back on the second runs as Verstappen was able to gain enough with the fastest Q3 time in sector one – where light rain was falling in the final sector – and then hold on through the lap to set a 1m32.910s.
The Circuit of The Americas is Mercedes territory, the Silver Arrows having taken pole position in every race since the hybrid turbo era began. And that advantage looked locked in again after first Friday practice as they ended up nearly a second clear of Red Bull.
But as temperatures rose for second practice, Mercedes seemed to slip back, both drivers struggling for grip with the rears prone to overheating. That said, Lewis Hamilton would have been quickest if he put all his best mini sectors together, according to our data, rather than Sergio Perez, in FP2.
And our qualifying simulation data has Mercedes holding an impressive 0.33s advantage over championship rivals Red Bull – one of their most significant gaps all year.
It’s less promising in terms of race pace, with Red Bull the quicker on long runs, with a 0.13s advantage. But that is perhaps not a surprise given Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were unhappy with the balance and felt the car wasn’t easy to drive in the afternoon.
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Plenty of work to do overnight, then, to find the perfect set-up – but they’ve shown time and time again that they’re able to find time ahead of qualifying. More challenging, though, is their engine reliability, which has been unusually unpredictable of late.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted to me that reliability is a concern after they were forced to change Bottas’ engine for the second time in three races, moving the Finn onto his sixth internal combustion engine – more than double his permitted allocation.