Title favourite Lewis Hamilton has insisted he will be a worthy champion despite Sebastian Vettel’s recent implosion clearing the road to glory.
Hamilton, 32, stands on the verge of becoming one of only five drivers to own more than three world championships after establishing a 59-point lead over Vettel with just 100 to play for.
The Englishman will be given his first shot at glory here in Austin at the United States Grand Prix on Sunday as he prepares to join Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Vettel in the pantheon of the sport’s all-time greats. Schumacher won seven titles, Fangio five and Prost and Vettel both have four to their name.
Hamilton will seal his fourth crown if he outscores Vettel by 16 points at the Circuit of the Americas. The equation is simple: a victory will be enough for Hamilton if the Ferrari man fails to finish in the top five.
The championship race looked set to go down to the wire, but Vettel’s failure to finish two of the three grands prix staged in the Far East has left Hamilton with one hand on the title.
The Stevenage-born racer however, did not take kindly to one inquisitor who suggested a fourth championship – one which would move him ahead of Sir Jackie Stewart as Britain’s most successful grand prix driver – had been handed to him on a plate.
“If I was to win this championship, I think I would say that I’ve earned it,” Hamilton, who has won four of the five grands prix staged in Austin, said. “He (Vettel) has been a strong fighter all year and just because he has obviously had a few technical issues, their car is as good as it has always been.
“They’ve definitely had a couple of hiccups but I anticipate they’ll be very strong this weekend and for the last four races –so that’s why nothing changes for me.
“I’ve still got to continue to keep the pressure on and there’s no reason to back out. I have just got to keep pushing forwards.”
Hamilton only led the championship for the first time this year following his dominant victory at September’s Italian Grand Prix. Indeed, Hamilton trailed Vettel by 25 points after the Ferrari driver roared to victory in Monaco and he could finish only seventh.
Yet despite Ferrari’s recent turmoil, the smart money suggests that Hamilton will win his fourth title in Mexico a week on Sunday.
But the arrival here of Hamilton’s mother Carmen – her first visit to a race this season – and brother Nicolas, had more than a whiff of the troops gathering in view of a potential coronation.
“Winning the world championship is obviously the goal and of course I think about it every day,” Hamilton said. “I think my drive is to win that world championship so every bit of my energy goes towards that mission.
“But honestly, I don’t mind if it happens in Mexico. I don’t mind if it happens here. I don’t mind if it happens at the last race in Abu Dhabi, as long as it happens.”
Hamilton continued his imperious form by posting a record-breaking lap of the Circuit of the Americas en route to completing a practice double.
His best time of one minute and 34.668 seconds saw him finish comfortably clear of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen while Vettel was third in the order, half a second down on his championship rival.
Vettel avoided any mechanical glitches here on Friday, he completed only 11 laps – 15 fewer than Hamilton – in the day’s second session following a high-speed spin.
Vettel lost control of his Ferrari at the penultimate corner before ending up in the gravel. The German avoided any contact with the barriers, but following the detour, he complained his car felt like jelly.
His best lap was well adrift of Hamilton’s super-quick effort, and his lack of track time will be of concern to both Vettel and his Ferrari team.
For Hamilton, there were no such dramas on a near-perfect day.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas finished fourth in the order, 0.6 seconds adrift of the Briton, with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo fifth and Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen sixth.
Fernando Alonso, who will remain at McLaren next season, failed to complete one lap in the opening session following a hydraulics issue, but the two-time world champion finished seventh later in the day.
Brendon Hartley, the New Zealander making his grand prix debut here this weekend, finished 17th for Toro Rosso, more than three seconds off the pace.