By Alan Baldwin
AUSTIN, Texas(Reuters) – Formula One favourite Lewis Hamilton can win his fifth title from pole position on Sunday but the Mercedes driver cannot expect Sebastian Vettel to give up without a fight after Ferrari’s strong showing in U.S. Grand Prix qualifying.
Vettel qualified second on Saturday, just 0.061 slower than Hamilton, but will start from fifth place after a grid penalty is applied for failing to slow sufficiently when red flags were waved during Friday’s practice.
If Hamilton wins the race, then Vettel must finish second to keep the championship alive.
While Vettel can expect help from team mate Kimi Raikkonen on the front row, he will have to deal with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo immediately ahead of him as well as Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas.
Ricciardo told reporters he would do what he could to stay in front, and that he liked to think he had a chance with the race pace likely to be better than qualifying.
However, his Dutch team mate, Max Verstappen, suggested that would be a big ask.
“They are quick,” said Verstappen, who starts 13th, of the Ferraris. “I expect him (Vettel) to go past Daniel quite quickly.”
Bottas, whose main job will be to protect Hamilton, said he was thinking more about those in front than behind.
“I think my job tomorrow is to try and attack, progress in the race and that means at least getting by Kimi,” he told reporters.
“The goal is to get the maximum points we can as a team. There’s no plans for me trying to slow down anyone. I’m just trying to go for it and get the best result there is.”
Mercedes have finished the last two races one-two, and Hamilton has won four in a row and six of the last seven.
Team boss Toto Wolff invoked team orders in Russia last month to ensure Hamilton finished first, with Bottas letting him through, and the Finn knows he cannot expect to challenge his team mate until the title is won.
Wolff said Bottas had to “go for it at the beginning”.
“If at the end we find ourselves in a situation where we again need to evaluate the points, we will do that,” he added.
The Austrian cautioned again that people should take nothing for granted.
“Either you have the trophy in your hands or you don’t,” he added.
“And I know from the points we are looking solid but everything can happen in this sport. And Ferrari has come back strong … and that’s why I’d like to keep all options open.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)