AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton posted the top time on Friday in free practice for the U.S. Grand Prix, signaling he is ready to clinch a sixth Formula One drivers’ title in style.
Hamilton, who could secure the crown without even scoring a point in Texas, lapped the Circuit of the Americas in one minute 33.232 seconds to send Mercedes to the top of the timing sheets and put down his marker on a seventh U.S. Grand Prix win.
“I’m looking forward to the weekend - I love this track in general and the car felt fairly decent today,” said Hamilton. “However, we’ve still got a lot of work to do, so we will dig through the data tonight and hopefully we can be strong tomorrow.”
Charles Leclerc was second quickest, 0.301 behind the Briton, as Ferrari look to crash the Mercedes party by claiming what would be a seventh consecutive pole position on Saturday.
“In qualifying I think so, in the race we will see,” said Leclerc when asked about Ferrari’s chances of getting the better of Mercedes. “The car felt quite good today in qualifying pace for race runs we need to do some work still.
“I believe it was a positive day.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who was stripped of his Mexican Grand Prix pole last Saturday after failing to slow for yellow warning flags, had the top time in first practice but could only produce the third-best effort in the afternoon session.
The Dutchman was followed by Ferrari’s four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel in fourth.
Hamilton, already the most successful driver in U.S. Grand Prix history with six wins including five in Texas, has designated the Circuit of the Americas a “good hunting ground”, making it the perfect spot to clinch another title.
Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas, the only driver still with a chance of overtaking Hamilton in the drivers’ standings, had the fifth-best time but will need something better if he is to have any hope of taking the title fight to Brazil.
Hamilton will secure the title if he finishes eighth or better on Sunday but does not need to score any points at all to continue for another year as champion if Bottas does not win.
Bottas, 74 points behind with three races remaining worth a maximum 78, has yet to finish higher than fifth in Texas.
Unseasonably cold conditions greeted drivers as they arrived at the track, with frost covering the brush, but it was a choppy circuit that brought out the complaints.
“I don’t mind bumps on a street circuit but some of these are quite severe and more like a jump so the wheels actually come off the ground,” said Verstappen, who charged to a second place last year after qualifying 15th. “This track is also very aggressive on tires so if we can keep them under control then it could be pretty good.”
Hamilton was also unimpressed by the condition of the circuit that has been one of his favorites.
“These bumps are insane out here — I don’t know if this track is safe,” Hamilton told his team over the radio as he headed out in the morning session where he finished eighth quickest.
If Hamilton was unhappy with the conditions he was no doubt pleased to have the reassuring voice of race engineer Peter Bonnington back in his headset.
“Bono”, as Bonnington is known to friends and team mates, missed the Mexico Grand Prix due to a “personal medical procedure” and had been expected to miss two races, but was back in the pits here to help Hamilton try to clinch a sixth title.
“Bumps can add character to a circuit, so I’m not a fan of completely smooth circuits, but the bumps here are just massive,” said Hamilton. “The bumps felt pretty bad in FP1 but we made some changes to make it feel a little bit better for the afternoon session.”
Editing by Clare Fallon and Daniel Wallis