Lewis Hamilton hailed Mercedes’ “big improvement” after qualifying third for the Mexican Grand Prix on Saturday, but was wary of taking a cautious approach at the start for fear of a repeat of his clash with Formula 1 title rival Sebastian Vettel from 2017.

Hamilton heads into Sunday’s race requiring a top-seven finish to clinch his fifth F1 drivers’ championship, while Vettel must win if he is to keep the title race alive to Brazil.

The title rivals will start side-by-side on the second row of the grid, with both having been beaten by the Red Bulls in qualifying at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on Saturday, led by pole-sitter Daniel Ricciardo.

Hamilton was full of praise for Mercedes after recovering from a difficult Friday that saw him finish over a second off the pace to recover to third place on the grid.

“I’m really happy with it. Honestly, we had a difficult day yesterday and it was a big improvement today,” Hamilton said.

“Yesterday we were much further back, so I wasn’t expecting to be up as high as this, but the team did a great job last night and analysed for today.

“That was the most I could get but I’m really happy for Daniel. Of course being behind the Red Bulls is not a bad thing.”

Asked if he would consider a cautious approach at the start given the title permutations, Hamilton made reference to the incident with Vettel at the start of last year’s race that saw the Ferrari driver run into the back of his car, leaving him with a puncture.

“Well you saw what happened last year with the red car [Vettel] behind, so I don’t know,” Hamilton said.

“It really depends how we get away but third place is a nice place to start because you get a good tow from the guys ahead, so naturally I’m going to be fighting to at least try and gain a position.

“But of course, I’m aware of the Bulls ahead.”

Hamilton expanded on the changes made by Mercedes between Friday and Saturday that gave him more confidence when pushing the W09 car.

“Honestly, it’s a night and day difference,” Hamilton said. “Yesterday we really were struggling. FP1 was OK but then once we got to FP2 it was not fun to drive, that’s for sure, and there were several different problems on the whole car, mechanical side, aero side, mostly mechanical side and a little bit aero and a little bit on the engine side of things.

“So big changes and improvements were made overnight and to come back in today and put us in contention all of a sudden. We didn’t think yesterday with that performance that we would be able to qualify on an Ultra so that would have been a massive disadvantage for us tomorrow if we had to start on the Hyper for example.

“As soon as we got into qualifying, I knew straight away the way the car’s feeling, I was like, OK we’re in a much stronger position to fight for position.

“I’m just glad that I was able to do the job, improve on my second run. Qualifying was pretty good for me.”

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