Lewis Hamilton seized pole position from teammate Nico Rosberg in an attempt to breathe life into his championship defence.
The pair were evenly matched after their first of two quick Q3 laps, Hamilton leading Rosberg by less than a tenth after the German made a crucial mistake at the first turn, but the Briton dominated his rival on their second attempts.
The margin was 0.216, delivering Hamilton his first pole at the Circuit of the Americas despite his three victories at the Austin circuit.
“I feel amazing, it’s my first pole here,” Hamilton said relievedly. “It’s been many years of trying, a lot of great people have tried to help me get that, so I’m very happy with today.”
Rosberg rued the first sector — scene of his mistake on the first lap and the biggest difference between him and his teammate on the second lap — as his downfall in the fight for pole.
“I preferred sectors two and three today!” he said. “Lewis was quicker in sector one — of course I was annoyed when Lewis came over the line and beat me to it, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
The German has enough championship points to finish second to his teammate for the rest of the season and still win the title, but 27-year-old said he was thinking about Sunday’s win.
“As we’ve seen this year, qualifying isn’t all-important, so from P2 we still have a chance tomorrow.”
The Mercedes drivers might have had it all their own way in qualifying, but Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull Racing car, 0.510 seconds down the road, will start the race with a different strategy, which the Australian hopes could help him challenge for victory.
Hamilton and Rosberg — and Ricciardo teammate Max Verstappen, who qualified fourth — will start the race on the slower soft tyre, whereas Ricciardo will use the fastest supersoft compound, which could deliver him the lead out of the tight turn-one hairpin on race day.
“We expected it to go like this,” Ricciardo said. “Max was wanting to try the soft and I was happy to go on the supersoft.
“I was more comfortable on that tyre yesterday on the long run — hopefully it gives me a bit of a better launch off the line as well.
“We’ve got a good chance tomorrow, so we’ll see what I can do.”
Verstappen was more than 0.2 seconds behind his teammate, but the Dutchman held a 0.4-second buffer to the Ferrari cars, which failed to play a meaningful part in qualifying.
Kimi Räikkönen led red-clad teammate Sebastian Vettel, who said he was disappointed with the team’s lack of improvement between Q2 and Q3.
Nico Hülkenberg, who last week signed a contract with Renault for 2017, was the fastest midfield driver, just 0.3 seconds behind the Scuderia and a full half-second ahead of the Williams cars.
Valtteri Bottas beat Williams teammate Felipe Massa by 0.1 seconds, and Carlos Sainz but his 2015 Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso an impressive 0.05 seconds further behind to start tenth.
The second segment of qualifying again proved pivotal for strategies during the race when both Mercedes drivers and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen made it through to Q3 using the soft, rather than supersoft, tyre.
All three drivers will be able to start the race on the more durable compound, handing them a race strategy ace and giving life to the possibility of a one-stop grand prix.
Verstappen’s teammate Daniel Ricciardo notably opted for a more conventional supersoft tyre run, banking on a challenge for the lead a the first turn that would earn him a potentially powerful track position advantage.
The top six cars — Mercedes, Red Bull Racing, and Ferrari — left the session after single fast laps, but the battle between Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso and Fernando Alonso’s McLaren for the final four places was still raging.
Nico Hülkenberg beat Verstappen’s fastest soft time on his way to securing a spot in the top 10, but his Force India teammate, Sergio Perez, missed out on the final session by 0.1 seconds in P11 after Carlos Sainz set an impressive Q3-worthy lap for Toro Rosso.
Both Williams cars sneaked through to the pole shootout, eliminating Fernando Alonso, who was a tenth behind Perez, in P12.
Behind the Spaniard qualified Daniil Kvyat in the second Toro Rosso, Esteban Gutierrez for Haas, Jolyon Palmer’s Renault and Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber.
Marcus Ericsson put the cat amongst the pigeons with an impressive time to break out of the bottom six in the opening qualifying session, putting at risk the McLaren drivers.
Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button both expected to be competing for the top 10 in Austin, but slow cars refusing to move off the racing line compromised Button’s final lap.
The Briton slipped down the order to P19, and though he had a chance to set another lap, the delicate supersoft tyre had no more performance to give, eliminating the McLaren in P19.
Ahead of him qualified Romain Grosjean at Haas’s home race, notably outqualified by teammate Esteban Gutierrez, who made it through to Q2, and Kevin Magnussen’s Renault.
Felipe Nasr’s Sauber separated Manor drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon in twentieth and twenty-second.
2016 UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX QUALIFYING RESULTS
|3||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer||1:35.509||+0.510|
|4||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer||1:35.747||+0.748|
|7||Nico Hülkenberg||Force India-Mercedes||1:36.628||+1.629|
|10||Carlos Sainz||Toro Rosso-Ferrari||1:37.326||+2.327|
|11||Sergio Perez||Force India-Mercedes||1:37.353||—|
|13||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso-Ferrari||1:37.480||—|