AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lewis Hamilton's race start at the U.S. Grand Prix will be far from ideal. His position in the season championship is still just fine.
The Mercedes driver will start a distant fifth Sunday after a disappointing qualifying where teammate Valtteri Bottas grabbed the pole position with a lap record at the Circuit of the Americas.
Hamilton has been a dominant force on the Texas track where he's won five times since 2012, but none of those victories came from starts behind the front row.
So Hamilton will be chasing Bottas for the win, but he could just settle in for a cruise to a sixth career Formula One championship.
Bottas has to win to extend the championship. Hamilton only needs to finish eighth or better to secure the title. He could even do it if he finishes ninth but grabs the single point awarded to the driver with the fastest lap.
Hamilton hasn't finished lower than ninth this season and was down there only once — in the rain in Germany.
"It was nothing to do with the car, it was just me," Hamilton said after qualifying. "I just didn't pull the laps out. The car had the capability to be on the front row. I just didn't do it today. I'll try to rectify it tomorrow."
Bottas is the only driver still mathematically alive in the championship, even if just barely. He expects Hamilton to drive to win, at least for a while.
"From what I know about him, he'll be there fighting hard. Lewis hates to lose. He wants to win like all of us do," Bottas said. "He doesn't need many points. He'd like to win the championship in a nice way. Obviously, I'll try to delay that."
Bottas won his 11th career pole with a lap record of 1 minute, 32.029 seconds that beat Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel by just 0.012 seconds.
Hamilton has called the U.S. Grand Prix "good hunting ground" for him based on his past success. He race win in clinched the 2015 clinched the season championship.
That was the last time he's ended the title chase with a victory. His 2017 and 2018 championships were secured in Mexico City despite running some of his poorest races of those seasons, and didn't finish on the podium either time.
After winning last week in Mexico City , Hamilton said he'd like to clinch this year's title with a win. The Texas track seemed the ideal place to do that considering Hamilton's record there, but now he's trying to buck a trend: No winner at the Circuit of the Americas has started from behind the front row.
Hamilton seemed resigned to the unlikelihood of victory Sunday.
"I'm not looking to pull out miracles tomorrow," Hamilton said.
Germany's Michael Schumacher has the most F1 championships with seven won between 1994 and 2004. A sixth title would move Hamilton into second place by himself, breaking his tie with Argentina's Juan Manuel Fangio, who won five titles in the 1950s.
In front of Hamilton to the first turn Sunday will be Red Bull's Max Verstappen and Ferrari's Charles Leclerc.
Verstappen hoped to challenge for pole position but a tire lockup early in his final lap killed his chance. Leclerc put in a solid qualifying after engine trouble in Saturday's final practice. Ferrari had put a new engine in his car for this week's race, but it had an oil leak that caused smoke to billow out of the rear end.
Ferrari put Leclerc's old engine back in the car to avoid taking a grid penalty and he still finished ahead of Hamilton.
Qualifying was all kinds of stressful for Hamilton. He nearly collided with Verstappen early in the session, an incident that could have doomed both cars had they hit each other.
Verstappen said he was lining up behind Toro Rosso's Daniil Kvyat as the cars were getting ready to start a lap when Hamilton suddenly drove between them. Verstappen swerved and drove through the grass to regain position in front of Hamilton.
It was the latest dustup between the drivers.
"Everybody was lining up to make space and Lewis drove by like nobody was there," Verstappen said. "He didn't care."
More AP Formula One news: https://apnews.com/FormulaOne
Follow Jim Vertuno at https://twitter.com/jimvertuno