AUSTIN, Texas -- When Lewis Hamilton left the garage for his qualifying lap on Saturday afternoon at the U.S. Grand Prix, he knew it would take a near-perfect lap to beat his Ferrari rivals to pole position.
At the last three races Mercedes had held a comfortable performance advantage over Ferrari, but that disappeared when it came to the first dry practice session of the weekend on Saturday morning in Austin. Hamilton and his engineers were immediately worried about the pace of Ferraris and he ended the final practice session with a 0.073s gap to title rival Sebastian Vettel.
Three hours later and the gap was even smaller between the two, just 0.061s, but the crucial difference was that Hamilton was ahead.
"It was clearly very intense and naturally going into qualifying we weren't really sure what to expect after driving in the wet yesterday," he said. "Today in practice it looked like the Ferraris had made some improvements, they brought an upgrade and, although it looks like they may have taken it off, they were very close to us.
"I knew it was going to take perfection and very, very neat laps to outpace them. I think James [Vowles, Mercedes' head strategist] had told us it was very close between us so give it everything."
Hamilton set the fastest time on his first attempt in the final session of qualifying, but that lap was ultimately beaten by both Ferraris when they went for their second run. That meant Hamilton also had to improve on his final attempt and, after making mistakes on his second attempts in Q3 earlier this year, he said he had to be disciplined throughout the lap.
"Once we got to Q3 it was really about maximising and making sure we were on track at the right time and making sure we were not leaving a millisecond on the track basically," he explained. "The first lap was good but it was quite close between us all, but I knew being less than a tenth, I knew on the second lap the Ferraris would improve also, so there was no room for error.
"Considering there have been some Q3's in past races where I had bailed out of the second lap because it wasn't good enough, so I was very, very strict with myself today. I was like 'today you need to make sure you pull through on that second lap' and I'm so grateful I did."
Hamilton admitted he had not been feeling his usual self ahead of the session, but whether it was the pressure of securing the title or simply a longer lie-in due to the unusually late scheduling of qualifying in Austin, he said he was ecstatic when he finally took pole.
"It was a different feeling today coming in, I don't know why. I don't know if I slept longer but I was in a different headspace going into qualifying which was weird, but it was a good one still.
"I think the approach from the team has been very sturdy this weekend and we have not been getting ahead of ourselves. We knew this weekend it was going to be close and we had to do our due diligence.
"I am so happy."
Hamilton goes into Sunday's race with a golden opportunity to secure his fifth world title in Formula One. Vettel will start from fifth position due to a three-place grid penalty for speeding under red flag conditions on Friday and will need to finish within seven points of Hamilton on Sunday to keep the title alive. Therefore, a Hamilton victory on Sunday will mean Vettel will have to finish second to keep his championship hopes alive.