Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel has kept his slim title hopes alive by taking pole for the Mexican Grand Prix.

Vettel stole pole from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen at the last gasp to edge out the Dutchman by a slim 0.086 seconds.

But Hamilton still holds the upper-hand in the championship battle. Needing only to finish fifth in Sunday’s race to be sure of the title, he qualified 0.446 seconds off pole and will start in third ahead of Valtteri Bottas.

Force India’s Estaban Ocon will start in fourth, while his team-mate and hometown favorite, Sergio Perez, was almost four-tenths behind to take tenth on the grid.

McLaren’s Fernando Alonso laid down a marker with the fifth fastest time in the first session of qualifying and claimed to have had ‘the best car on track’, but then he and team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne failed to take part in the second session owing to their huge grid penalties for excessive engine usage and will start from the back.

Vettel Snatches Pole With ‘Quite A Lap’

Max Verstappen had the edge during qualifying ending 0.324 seconds quicker than Vettel in Q2 and lodging the fastest first run in Q3.

But the Dutchman couldn’t get a clean run on his last hot lap while Vettel found an extra gear to secure pole by the narrowest of margins.

“It was quite a lap I have to say,” said Vettel. “I’m really, really happy. It’s very difficult here. It’s very slippery and difficult to get everything in one lap.”

Verstappen was initially under investigation by the race stewards for potentially impeding Bottas’ first lap but after reviewing the incident the stewards ruled that the Red Bull was not at fault.

Verstappen said: “Which incident? I was on the inside and he was doing his line and so there is no incident.”

The conditions also changed considerably during qualifying – with a massive 7-degree drop in temperature – and that played against the Red Bull’s.

Verstappen said: “I am super-annoyed. Actually in Q3 it got a little more difficult getting the tires to work. I gave it my all. In qualifying it was just not enough but we have a decent start position at least.”

The same scenario played-out for Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo who qualified a disappointing seventh despite taking an extra warm-up lap to bring his tires up to temperature. The Australian was fastest in Friday practice but slipped off the pace on Saturday morning and by qualifying the gap grew to almost one second.

When asked to explain the disparity Ricciardo said: “It was about just being confused, not understanding what was going on in terms of the grip. We didn’t touch the car from yesterday – we left it as it was – and every time we left the pits we just had no grip.”

Hamilton Still In Control

Despite qualifying in third, Hamilton is still on target to claim his fourth world championship in Mexico. He needs only to finish higher than sixth – assuming Vettel wins – to win the title and a mechanical problem now seems his only obstacle to being labelled one of Formula 1’s ‘greats’.

Mercedes had long regarded the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez as a difficult circuit because of the high downforce required due to the altitude and so it played out that they were off the pace.

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas had Mercedes on top for Q1 with Vettel and Verstappen just 0.1 seconds behind them despite using harder tyres. It pointed to a difficult time in later in qualifying and in Q3 they just didn’t have the traction or speed.

Hamilton said: “I gave it everything I could. The last lap could have been a couple of tenths quicker but I wouldn’t have been able to match those times.”

“You can’t overtake here, you need a big delta to overtake, I think it’s over a second delta to the car in front, as far as I’m aware – 1.3 seconds or something – so positioning is important but there’s a long way down to Turn One. So, we should have some fun tomorrow.”

But the difference at Mexico is the altitude. Sitting 2,250m (7,400ft) above sea level, the thinner air means the wings of a Formula 1 car produces less downforce and teams run their cars in maximum downforce trim like they would at tight, twisty circuits like Monaco and Hungary. And it is at these circuits that Ferrari excelled, and Mercedes struggled.

Vettel was desperate for a win in Austin to keep his title aspirations alive and after overtaking Hamilton at the start it looked possible for a brief time. But Ferrari faded as the race wore on and Mercedes comfortably took victory with a superior pace advantage.

Title Within Reach For Hamilton

Hamilton’s fifth win in the last six races extends his lead to 66 points with just 75 up for grabs over the remaining three races. It means that Hamilton just needs to finish in the top five to take the title and in reality his main obstacle is a mechanical problem rather than a poor performance.

Mercedes has been remarkably reliable this year but Hamilton has clocked up a good amount of miles on his current engine that he has been running since the Belgian Grand Prix in August. On the flipside, Vettel has been beset with reliability issues –two of his three Asian races were ruined because of engine issues – but that does mean he has a newer engine and, hopefully, less likelihood of a brake down.

A thoroughly dejected Sebastian Vettel left Austin knowing that the title fight is now out of his hands. Hoping for Hamilton to have some misfortunate in Mexico is his only bet but the German still needs to win. And that’s where the track comes into play.

Is It A Mercedes Or Ferrari Track?

The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez might not be renowned for its technical brilliance but the atmosphere around the circuit is revered among spectators.

The track’s spirit touches the emotions while the story of brothers Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez, after which the circuit is named, stirs pride through the Mexicans.

It’s now an updated version of the track at the same location that hosted Formula 1 from 1986 to 1992 although, in Vettel’s words, it is now a “bit so-so” after the challenge of the Esses were taken out by a reprofiling.

With that said, few cannot be moved by the technically demanding Peraltda curve in the final sector, with drivers racing between the towering grandstands as they power on to the start/finish line.

“The standout is the final two corners and driving through the stadium,” says Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg. “That’s really cool, it’s always loud and a real goose bumps moment.”

The overall layout of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez should on paper better suit Mercedes with the three long straights and high-speed looping corners making it a low downforce track at sea level.

But the difference at Mexico is the altitude. Sitting 2,250m (7,400ft) above sea level, the thinner air means the wings of a Formula 1 car produces less downforce and teams run their cars in maximum downforce trim like they would at tight, twisty circuits like Monaco and Hungary. And it is at these circuits that Ferrari excelled and Mercedes struggled.

Paddy Lowe from Williams explains: “Due to the altitude there is about 80 percent normal atmospheric pressure. The effect of this is that we run the most extreme downforce bodywork that we have available, but it only delivers the level of downforce that we would typically run at Monza, which is a very high-speed circuit. Therefore, the cars are very light on downforce which makes it particularly challenging for the drivers and we often see a lot of mistakes, leading to some interesting races.”

This opening gives Vettel a slight hope of keeping the title battle alive by taking the victory while Hamilton makes an unusual mistake or succumbs to engine problems. Either way, the Mexican Grand Prix is set to be an exciting encounter and perhaps history-making.