Austin, Texas (AP) — Lewis Hamilton is driving the Circuit of the Americas like he has won here four times before.
The Mercedes driver and Formula One season championship points leader posted the fastest laps in Friday’s two practice sessions for the U.S. Grand Prix, putting more pressure on title rival Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari, who spun into the gravel and completed just 11 laps in the afternoon session.
Hamilton’s quickest lap in a dry afternoon session was 1 minute, 34.668 seconds. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was second, 0.397 seconds behind. Vettel, who trails Hamilton by 59 points in the driver standings, was third.
Vettel likely has to win or finish ahead of Hamilton on Sunday if he hopes to chase him down over the final four races.
Hamilton has won the last three years at a Circuit of the Americas track that has favored Mercedes’ power. Another victory would make his lead nearly insurmountable absent a late-season collapse.
The British driver came to Texas on a punishing pace that could crush any hopes Vettel still has of a rally. Hamilton has won five of the last seven races and another win would be his ninth on the season. On each of his four wins in Austin, Hamilton has never started lower than No. 2 and will be hard to beat in qualifying on Saturday.
“He has gone up a level,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “It’s very pleasing to see.”
Ferrari has been able to match Mercedes power in spots. Vettel has four wins. But disastrous starts in recent weeks have put the championship in Hamilton’s hands for the taking. Vettel crashed on the first lap in Singapore, then was knocked out of the first lap in Japan with a spark plug problem. Even a brilliant drive from the back to finish fourth in Malaysia lost him points to Hamilton that day.
Vettel was pushing Friday and has a lot of work to do if he’s to match Hamilton’s pace. He had a wild spin into the gravel in the turn before pit lane. That section of the track has a large runoff area so Vettel was never in danger of running his car into a wall.
The Ferrari’s troubles weren’t done. Even when Vettel got back on the track, a suspension problem cut his second practice short as he complained the car felt “a bit like jelly” and he returned to the garage.
Early Friday, Red Bull announced a contract extension for Verstappen to stay with the team through 2020. Verstappen was already under contract through 2019, but Red Bull was determined to lock down its rising star before he could be poached away by rivals.
Verstappen is enjoying his best form of the season with a win in Malaysia and a second-place finish in Japan in the previous two races. That came after a rash of problems, from engine problems to crashes, caused him not to finish seven races. The win in Malaysia was career No. 2 for the 20-year-old Dutchman who many view as a potential Formula One champion.
“He is a pure racer, with an undeniable talent at the wheel and a rare instinct for what it takes to compete consistently at this level,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said.
The U.S. Grand Prix could steal some of Verstappen’s momentum despite his quick laps Friday. A power unit change and other upgrades will mean a starting grid penalty for Sunday’s race.
“Red Bull has always shown their faith and belief in me with actions,” Verstappen said of his contract deal. “They have always backed me and my ambition and I know we share that ambition.”