Sepang, Malaysia - Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes stormed to pole position with a scorching lap in qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix as title rival Sebastian Vettel was left stranded in the garage and will start dead last.
The championship leader set a lap of one minute 30.076, the fastest ever around the 5.5km Sepang track, to beat Kimi Raikkonen by 0.045 seconds at the end of a hard-fought session.
Max Verstappen, celebrating his 20th birthday, was third.
Raikkonen, who had topped Saturday’s final practice session, ended up as Ferrari’s best hope for pole, with Vettel limping back to the pits with engine problems at the end of his first lap out of the pits without having set a time.
Trailing Hamilton by 28 points, the qualifying upset dealt yet another big blow to Vettel’s championship hopes, a fortnight after the 30-year-old crashed out of the last race in Singapore on the opening lap.
“It’s part of motor racing so…I mean, I didn’t do anything today, this afternoon especially,” said Vettel, who had his engine changed before qualifying and was hoping to capitalise on Mercedes struggles this weekend to claw back the points he lost in Singapore.
“For sure it’s not ideal, not what you want especially on a day where you feel you’ve got it in you, got it in the car,” he said.
Saturday’s pole was the 70th of Hamilton’s career and fifth in Malaysia, which is hosting its last race on Sunday.
It was also his ninth pole this season and further boosted his hopes of clinching a fourth title after the 32-year-old Briton capitalised on Vettel’s crash to win in Singapore.
Hamilton will not have to win another race if he triumphs on Sunday and Vettel finishes lower than second.
“We had no idea how it was going to go today,” said the triple champion, whose Mercedes team has struggled to get speed from its car this weekend.
“I'm sorry with what happened to Sebastian. We turned it around and the car was great.”
Daniel Ricciardo, who led Verstappen in a one-two for Red Bull in Malaysia last year, will start fourth.
Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas will start a disappointing fifth.
Frenchman Esteban Ocon set the fifth-fastest time for Force India ahead of McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.
Sergio Perez was ninth in the Force India while Fernando Alonso rounded out the top 10 for McLaren.
Frenchman Pierre Gasly, drafted in as a last-minute replacement for under-performing Russian Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso, will make his Formula One debut from 15th on the grid.
The 21-year-old lost out to Renault-bound team mate Carlos Sainz by less than two-tenths of a second.
1. Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes
2. Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) Ferrari
3. Max Verstappen (Netherlands) Red Bull - TAG Heuer
4. Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) Red Bull - TAG Heuer
5. Valtteri Bottas (Finland) Mercedes
6. Esteban Ocon (France) Force India - Mercedes
7. Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgium) McLaren
8. Nico Huelkenberg (Germany) Renault
9. Sergio Perez (Mexico) Force India - Mercedes
10. Fernando Alonso (Spain) McLaren
11. Felipe Massa (Brazil) Williams-Mercedes
12. Jolyon Palmer (Britain) Renault
13. Lance Stroll (Canada) Williams-Mercedes
14. Carlos Sainz Jr (Spain) Toro Rosso - Renault
15. Pierre Gasly (France) Toro Rosso - Renault
16. Romain Grosjean (France) Haas - Ferrari
17. Kevin Magnussen (Denmark) Haas - Ferrari
18. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany) Sauber - Ferrari
19. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden) Sauber - Ferrari
20. Sebastian Vettel (Germany) Ferrari