Sebastian Vettel scored an electric pole position to keep his faint title hopes on life support at the 2017 Mexican Grand Prix.
The battle for the front of the grid boiled down to a straight fight between Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, with the latter having set a blistering new lap record in Q2 to make his and his team’s intentions clear.
Verstappen landed the first blow in Q3, his first lap just fractions off lowering the bar again, but it was a visually on-the-edge lap by Vettel after the chequered flag that snatched pole from the Dutchman by 0.086 seconds.
“It was quite a lap, I have to say,” Vettel said. “I’m really, really happy.”
Ferrari didn’t appear to be a threat until the end of qualifying. Vettel complained of lacking balance in the car around the slippery Mexico City circuit, but he praised his team’s work on Friday night after practice to put him back into pole contention.
“It’s quite difficult here. It’s quite slippery. I had a good start, but then I had a bit of a wobble in turn six — I nearly lost it there, but I didn’t lose any time.
“Then I knew in the last sector if I just kept it clean it’d be enough, and it was. I’m really, really happy.”
Sebastian Vettel is racing to keep his championship alive this weekend. Hamilton, who leads the German in the standings by 66 points, need finish only fifth regardless of Vettel’s result to claim the title.
Vettel, however, said he wasn’t giving up.
“We have to maximise every session. Obviously today’s really important, and tomorrow we’ll see. It’s not as much in my control as I’d like it to be.
“Ferrari deserves a good result, so we’ll see what we can do tomorrow.”
Verstappen qualified a dejected second after being in the box seat all afternoon, but the 20-year-old acknowledged that he was nonetheless starting from a good position to improve in the race.
“I’m super annoyed,” he said. “In Q3 it got a bit more difficult, I couldn’t really get the tyres to work.
“Of course second is good, but not really what I wanted. I gave it all of course today in qualifying, but it just wasn’t enough,
“I really wanted that pole position, but at least it’s a good start position.”
His starting position remains provisional, however, with the Dutchman under investigation for impeding Valtteri Bottas early in Q3, causing the Mercedes driver to abort his lap.
Lewis Hamilton qualified third but was a distant 0.446 seconds off the pace for Mercedes.
The German marque expected to struggle here, and though Hamilton thought there was a bit more time to be eked from his machine, he admitted it wouldn’t have been enough to improve his position.
“Those guys [Vettel and Verstappen] did a great job, they’re obviously very quick,” he said. “I gave it everything I could.
“The last lap could’ve been a couple of tenths quicker, but that wouldn’t have been enough.”
Valtteri Bottas qualified fourth and just 0.024 seconds behind teammate Hamilton in a much-improved qualifying result for the Finn, and he fended off Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen by almost 0.3 seconds.
Esteban Ocon qualified sixth for Force India, one place ahead of a “confused” Daniel Ricciardo, who attributed his 0.959-second gap to pole to struggles with tyre warm-up in the cool conditions.
Nico Hülkenberg outqualified Renault teammate Carlos Sainz for eighth and ninth, and crowd favourite Sergio Perez qualified 10th and almost 0.4 seconds behind Force India teammate Ocon.
Brendon Hartley, impressing in just his second weekend in Formula One for Toro Rosso, had his day cut short by a power unit issue — the second of the day for the team, which suffered another Renault problem in free practice three earlier in the day.
The New Zealander was forced to stop on track, triggering yellow flags with less than 10 minutes remaining on the clock and interrupting a number of fast laps in the process.
It opened a window for Max Verstappen, who started his lap shortly after the caution period ended, to set a sizzling new track record on the ultrasoft tyre in what prove da portent of the battle for pole later in the day.
In the knockout zone, though Hartley was out of contention, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne qualified behind him in 14th and 15th. Both opted not to set a time, knowing as they do that they each carry back-of-the-grid penalties.
Williams’s Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll sparred with Force India’s Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, but the latter came off best, relegated Massa and Stroll to 11th and 12th.
Qualifying started with home hero Sergio Perez broadcasting from inside his car and onto the track PA system a message of thanks to his adoring fans.
The crowd, as densely packed as ever, erupted into cheers as all drivers bar one began competing to make it out of the knockout zone.
Pierre Gasly, returning from his Japanese Super Formula sojourn last weekend, was the missing competitor.
The Toro Rosso driver suffered a power unit failure during Saturday morning practice that necessitated an entire engine change, but the team wasn’t able to make the switch in the two hours before qualifying, relegating the Frenchman to the back of the grid.
Gasly’s absence meant just four cars would be knocked out at the end of the 18-minute segment.
Both Sauber drivers, as has been the case for most of the season, found themselves eliminated, with Marcus Ericsson building a 0.15 seconds gap of Pascal Wehrlein, but they qualified in positions 16 and 17, with Haas surprising as the slowest cars of the afternoon.
Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean qualified 18th and 19th fastest — a curious comparison given both teams use Ferrari engines but Sauber makes do with year-old units.
However, penalties for both McLaren drivers, who will be demoted to the back of the grid, will bump up all four drivers two places on Sunday.