AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Nico Rosberg earned a chance to tighten the Formula One championship duel with Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton by winning the pole position Saturday for the U.S. Grand Prix, while the race faced an early threat of a boycott by several teams that are struggling financially.
Rosberg edged Hamilton by .376 seconds at the Circuit of the Americas. Valtteri Bottas of Williams will start third.
Hamilton leads Rosberg by 17 points in the drivers’ championship with three races left.
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Saturday’s qualifying was clouded by the roiling tensions between Formula One’s wealthiest teams and those struggling to survive. Two teams, Marussia and Caterham, had already dropped out of Sunday’s race because of financial problems, reducing the grid to at most 18 cars, the smallest in nine years.
For several hours, it looked like it could get quite a bit smaller.
Sahara Force India deputy principal Bob Fernley said his team, Sauber and Lotus, were discussing a potential boycott Sunday or pulling out after one lap but wouldn’t commit to either action.
”It’s something that has to be discussed with the team owners. That’s quite a serious decision and they’re the only ones who can make it,” Fernley said. ”It’s not off the table, that’s for sure.”
The threat seemed to fade by late afternoon.
Lotus officials dismissed the chance of sitting out the race, and Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said her team wanted to ”maximize” driver Adrian Sutil’s first top 10 qualifying position this season.
Then Formula One commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone and Circuit of the Americas Chairman Bobby Epstein said the teams will race.
”Forget all that,” Ecclestone said. ”They will be racing, I give you a guarantee, but I worry if they will be racing next year.”
The mere threat of action conjured images of the disastrous U.S. Grand Prix of 2005, when a boycott over tire safety left only six cars racing. Winner Michael Schumacher was booed on the podium, the traditional champagne celebration was canceled and the public address announcer implored fans not throw things.
The current conflict between top teams and those struggling to survive reached the critical stage this week with the collapse of Marussia and Caterham.
Lotus, Sahara Force India, and Sauber sparred with Mercedes and McLaren officials in a contentious news conference Friday, arguing whether Formula One should adopt spending caps or other means to help smaller teams survive.
Ecclestone further enflamed things when he told Sky Sports the small teams are needed only ”if they are going to be there performing properly and not moving around with begging buckets.”
Rosberg and Hamilton, who have waged a season-long duel for the title, declined comment on the potential boycott.
Former Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart said a boycott would be a bad move by the teams and their business partners.
”I can’t imagine that would be a sensible thing for any team to do,” Stewart said. ”Formula One is the largest commercial sport in the world. That’s the last thing you want to be playing around with.”
Stewart also said it would be a dangerous move for Formula One just three years into its re-emergence in the American market.
The small teams aren’t trying to damage Formula One but want the sport to listen to them, Fernley said.
”The last thing anybody wants to do, particularly the owners of these three teams, who are pure racers, would be to damage anything,” Fernley said. ”But you’ve also got to understand that Formula One is also damaging them at the moment. There as to be some form of coming together.”
On the track, Rosberg earned his ninth pole of the season as Mercedes locked up to the top two spots for the 10th time.
”First place today is awesome,” Rosberg said, ”but it’s the race that counts.”
Defending race and world champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull will start Sunday from pit lane, after incurring a penalty for using his sixth engine this season. He participated in only the first of three qualifying rounds.