Saturday December 9th, 2023 9:27AM

Verstappen cruises to F1 sprint race win at Circuit of the Americas

By Jim Vertuno-AP Sports Writer

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Max Verstappen started from the pole position and cruised to his third Formula One sprint race victory of the season on Saturday at the Circuit of the Americas, a day before he'll go for another win in a dominant season at the United States Grand Prix.

Verstappen was denied the pole position for Sunday's race because of a rare mistake on his final lap of qualifying on Friday. But the Red Bull driver returned to the track in top form a day later and won the pole position for the 19-lap sprint race.

Verstappen has already won the season championship with 14 grand prix victories and has taken three of the five sprint races so far.

He squeezed Ferrari's Charles Leclerc into the first corner, an uphill, switchback left hander, to keep the lead out of the start.

From there it was a matter of building some space ahead of Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who had jumped Leclerc into second out of the first turn.  Hamilton is trying to catch Red Bull's Sergio Perez for second in the drivers' standings over the final five races of the season.

Mercedes brought what it hoped would be its last significant upgrades to the car this season. Hamilton stayed close to Verstappen for about four laps before dropping off. He still finished second, ahead of Leclerc.

Verstappen lost the pole position for Sunday's grand prix race because he exceeded track limits on the penultimate corner of his final lap of qualifying. He will start Sunday from sixth as he chases a record-tying 15th win this season.

Verstappen has won the last two races in Austin. The winner at COTA has come from the front row every year since 2012, but Verstappen has already won from sixth in Belgium and ninth in Miami this season.

After Verstappen's mistake in qualifying, race stewards widened slightly the race lanes in three corners, including the one one Verstappen missed, for the sprint race and Sunday's grand prix.

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