Lewis Hamilton completed one half of the job to secure a historic fifth World Championship by putting his Mercedes on pole position for the US Grand Prix.
Hamilton will seal the title in Austin, Texas on Sunday if he takes the chequered flag and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel fails to finish second.
The German was slower only than Hamilton in a nail-biting qualifying session, but he will be demoted to fifth after incurring a grid penalty for his failure to slow sufficiently under red flags in Friday’s practice.
Kimi Raikkonen will subsequently join Hamilton on the front row with the Briton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas third.
Mercedes did not appear to have the pace to beat Ferrari following the early phases at a cold and blustery Circuit of the Americas.
But as he so often does, Hamilton saved his very best for last, edging out Vettel by just 0.061 seconds for the 81st pole of his career.
“That was very important, and that was close,” Hamilton said. “I knew it was edgy between us and it was going to require solid laps.
“The second lap was better and it enabled me to pull it out of the bag. I was very adamant that I was going to do a better second lap so I am very happy with that.”
Vettel, who swore over the radio in frustration after discovering he had lost to Hamilton, added: “It was a bit of a shame that we missed out by that little time.
“Given the last couple of weeks we have had I am happy we are in range.”
Max Verstappen damaged his Red Bull on the kerbs at the exit of Turn 15 in the first qualifying session and played no further part.
That was good news for Daniel Ricciardo, who has been out-performed by Verstappen in all of the 11 qualifying rounds since the Monaco Grand Prix. The Australian will start fourth following Vettel’s penalty.
But there was bad news again for McLaren with both of their drivers falling at the first hurdle.
The Woking team will be desperate for the season to end and so, too, will Fernando Alonso as his wonderful career fizzles out with a whimper.
The two-time world champion, who has just four races remaining before he retires at the end of the year, qualified 16th with his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne slowest of all.
They will both rise two places, though, due to engine-change penalties dropping Toro Rosso pair Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley to the back of the grid.
Lewis Hamilton finished third as Sebastian Vettel set the pace in final practice for the US Grand Prix.
Hamilton will be crowned world champion for a fifth time in Austin on Sunday if he outscores Vettel by eight points.
Ferrari’s Vettel was penalised with a three-place grid drop for the race after failing to slow sufficiently under red flags in practice on Friday.
But the German was quickest at the Circuit of the Americas in the final running before qualifying. The highest he can start Sunday’s race, however, is fourth.
Mercedes driver Hamilton was fastest in both rain-hit practice sessions on Friday, but Ferrari held the edge in the dry.
Vettel edged out his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, with Hamilton just 0.073 seconds off the pace.
Valtteri Bottas finished fourth in the sister Mercedes, 0.7 sec slower than Vettel. Max Verstappen finished fifth for Red Bull ahead of Daniel Ricciardo.
Double world champion Fernando Alonso, who is retiring at the end of the year, was last in his McLaren.
Sebastian Vettel on Saturday acknowledged the “mutual respect” in his world championship fight with Lewis Hamilton ahead of this weekend’s potential title showdown.
The four-time champion German said his relationship with the defending champion had always been respectful, despite their lifestyle differences.
“I think the respect between us has always been there despite the fact that maybe we are very different.
“We appreciate the job that the other guy is doing. I think it’s a mutual respect that we have for each other. I think very respectful.”
Ferrari driver Vettel needs to prevent Hamilton out-scoring him by eight points in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix if he is to keep his title challenge alive.
But he will start the race with a three-place grid penalty following a controversial stewards’ ruling for speeding under red flags in opening practice.
The stewards’ decision, made in wet conditions, had reduced Vettel’s slim title chances according to Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene and means that he cannot start on the front row of the grid for a race in which he knows another Mercedes one-two will give Hamilton his fifth drivers’ title.
Vettel was penalised for failing to slow down sufficiently after Charles Leclerc’s Sauber had left gravel on the track after a spin.
Rival drivers felt the three-place punishment was too strong.
“It’s quite a harsh penalty,” said Pierre Gasly of Toro Rosso. “If you’ve been really careful… It’s a shame, especially looking at the situation, still fighting for the championship. And now he gets a penalty, it’s not so exciting.”