Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel maintained his early domination of the new Circuit of the Americas by winning pole position for the U.S. Grand Prix on Saturday, putting the German in the perfect spot to chase his third consecutive world championship.
Vettel is on the brink of history with two races left on the calendar. He would be just the third driver — and youngest — to win three consecutive world championships, joining Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher.
Dubbed the "Boy Wonder," Vettel made his Formula One debut at the U.S. Grand Prix in 2007 as a 19-year-old kid. At the ripe old age of 25, he now appears ready to join the sport's elite.
Vettel leads Ferrari's Fernando Alonso of Spain, a savvy veteran and two-time world champion himself, by 10 points.
Vettel avoided saying anything that would sound overconfident about winning another title. Two weeks ago, a penalty forced him to start in last place at Abu Dhabi before he finished third in the crash-filled race.
"I'm very happy with the (qualifying) result, but nobody has scored any points yet," Vettel said. "We saw in the last race how quickly things can change. It's the best strategy to keep your head down and try to get the best."
But the smiling Vettel clearly feels at ease in America and had no trouble navigating the new $400 million Circuit of the Americas built specifically for Formula One's return to the U.S. after a five-year absence.
Vettel posted the fastest times in the three practice sessions before his qualifying time of 1 minute, 35.657 seconds edged McLaren's Lewis Hamilton for pole position. Vettel's Red Bull teammate Mark Webber was third.
"The asphalt is brand new and it takes a while for the track to come in, but it's also quite a lot of fun to slide around a couple of corners, and it just got better throughout," Vettel said.
Vettel's ability to start up front puts more pressure on Alonso, who was 1.643 seconds slower. Alonso finished ninth in qualifying but will start No. 8 after Lotus' Romain Grosjean was penalized for changing his gearbox after the third practice session.
If Vettel wins Sunday, Alonso must finish no worse than fourth to force the championship into the final race next week in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Alonso appeared unfazed by Saturday's result.
"On Sunday, we are still sure that we can score more points than Vettel. I don't know how, but I have this feeling," Alonso said. "Sundays are normally our best part of the weekend."
Hamilton, who won pole position in Abu Dhabi, pushed Vettel hard for another.
"I was giving it everything. I had nothing really to lose. The car seemed to handle it quite well," said Hamilton, who will be racing one of his last grand prix for McLaren before moving to Mercedes in 2013.
Sunday will be Vettel's 100th career grand prix start. Along the way, he's picked up 26 career victories and learned how to close out a tight championship race.
Vettel won the 2010 title with a victory from the pole in the final race at Abu Dhabi, making him the youngest F1 world champion in history. He came back to dominate the circuit in 2011 with 11 victories and won the championship by 122 points.
This season has been much tighter, but a surge of four consecutive victories and a third-place finish two weeks ago put Vettel in position to claim another title.
Alonso has acknowledged Vettel has the faster car but insists he can push the championship to Brazil. Alonso started in a similar position in Abu Dhabi before finishing second.
"It's still possible," Alonso said. "Tomorrow I will try to do better and recover some places. We will push to the limit, as have done since the start of every year and every race weekend."
The Vettel-Alonso battle for the title has dominated the return of Formula One to the U.S. F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone said the season has been good for the sport, which needs some drama if it hopes to finally capture the American market that has shrugged its shoulders in the past.
"You wouldn't like to put your money on who's going to win the championship," Ecclestone said. "You can't do better than that."