SEBASTIAN Vettel will start the Mexican GP on pole position after edging out Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in a breathless finish to qualifying.
Hamilton, who will secure the title on Sunday if he finishes in fifth place or higher, will start from third.
Vettel's pole position was the 50th of his career and a welcome fillip to a Ferrari team reeling from a run of disastrous results since the summer break and still searching for their first win since July.
A week after he was controversially demoted from the US GP podium, Red Bull driver Verstappen faced another investigation for allegedly impeding Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas but the stewards ruled no further action was required.
The 20-year-old had appeared set to become the sport's youngest-ever pole sitter when he set the pace in Q2 and at the start of the top-ten shootout. But Verstappen was unable to improve on his second flying lap, opening the door for Vettel to snatch pole by less than a tenth of a second as the Ferrari driver set a new track record just before the chequered flag fell.
"I'm super annoyed," bemoaned Verstappen. "In Q3 it got a bit more difficult and couldn't get the tyres to work. Second is good but not given the way it went. I really wanted that pole position."
By their lofty 2017 standards, Mercedes have struggled at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez this weekend and Hamilton was nearly half a second shy of pole.
"I gave it everything I could," Hamilton said. "I think the last lap could have been a couple of tenths quicker but it wouldn't have been enough. I'm hoping I get to have at least a battle with one of them."
The start to Sunday's race - exclusively live on Sky Sports F1 and underway at 7pm - will be eagerly anticipated. While Hamilton has the most to lose, it is Verstappen and Vettel who have history after their collision last month in Singapore.
"It's a long way down to Turn 1, so we should have some fun tomorrow," predicted Hamilton.
The excellence of Vettel and Verstappen's efforts was put in context by the lack of pace of their teammates with Kimi Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo nearly a full second adrift.
Ricciardo's struggle to dial in his Red Bull allowed Esteban Ocon to snatch sixth, four places clear of Force India teammate and home favourite Sergio Perez.
Fernando Alonso offered a tantalising glimpse of his true pace when he wrestled his McLaren to within two tenths of the lead Q1 pace. But with yet more engine-related grid drops looming, the Spaniard sat out Q2 alongside Stoffel Vandoorne.
At the other end of the grid, Toro Rosso endured a torrid day. After Pierre Gasly's engine blew on the youngster's first lap of the day in Practice Three, teammate Brendon Hartley suffered a turbo failure at the start of Q2. The team are currently supplied by Renault but will switch to Honda next term.
Both Haas cars will also line-up alongside the demoted McLarens and stricken Toro Rossos after neither Kevin Magnussen nor Romain Grosjean made it through Q1. "It's a wake-up call," said a frustrated Grosjean.
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