Daniel Ricciardo denied Max Verstappen the chance to become the youngest man in Formula One history to claim pole position after beating his Red Bull team-mate with a sensational flying lap in Mexico.
The rampant Red Bulls locked out the front row in a thrilling qualifying session, while Lewis Hamilton, who needs to finish only seventh on Sunday to claim the world championship, qualified third.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who must win here to stand any chance of stopping Hamilton from claiming this year’s honours, finished behind his rival in fourth.
Verstappen, 21, had dominated all weekend at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, but he was beaten in the dying moments by Ricciardo, the Australian claiming his first pole at a track other than Monaco and only the third of his career.
Verstappen was clearly frustrated by the result, bumping the second-place board as he arrived on the start-finish straight.
Hamilton, who wants to see out the title which will draw him level with Juan Manuel Fangio with a victory, is in striking range of the Red Bulls but, crucially, ahead of his sole rival.
“I am really happy with it,” Hamilton said after his Mercedes team had been well off the pace in practice on Friday.
“We had a difficult day yesterday and today was a big improvement. Being behind the Red Bulls is not a bad thing.”
The 800-yard dash to the opening bend is the longest on the calendar and last year Vettel collided with Hamilton at the third bend.
“We saw what happened last year with the red car behind, so I don’t know what will happen at the start tomorrow,” he added.
“It depends how we get away, but I am going to be fighting to gain a position. I am wary of the Red Bulls ahead.”
Ricciardo, who edged out Verstappen by just 0.026 seconds, was ecstatic with the result.
“I knew it was in there somewhere,” he said moments after roaring over the radio in delight.
“I knew putting the lap together would be crucial as always, and Max showed the pace was in the car all weekend.”
Verstappen was rather less excited.
“The whole qualifying was c**p,” the deflated Dutchman said. “We had the same problems from practice yesterday.
“We tried to make the best of it and I thought it was going to be enough for pole with the problems we had.”
Valtteri Bottas was fifth for Mercedes ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.
Fernando Alonso had been eliminated from Q1 at the previous three races, but the soon-to-be-departing double world champion provided some respite for McLaren by qualifying 12th. “Good job,” the Spaniard was told.
His team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne, also leaving at the end of the year to be replaced by British teenager Lando Norris, finished 17th.
Home favourite Sergio Perez, whose laps through the unique stadium section were greeted with rockstar-like cheers, could manage only 13th, two places off Esteban Ocon in the sister Force India.
Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton has cemented his place among the world’s highest-earning sportsmen after signing a new £40million-per-year deal with Mercedes.
Hamilton placed 10th on Forbes’ most recent sporting rich list in June 2017, where he was the top-ranked racing driver and trailed only golfer Rory McIlroy among home nations competitors.
Here, we look at how the new deal could affect Hamilton’s financial outlook.
The ‘big five’
Forbes pegged Hamilton’s earnings from his sport at 38million US dollars, or £29.5m, for the 12 months to last June.
That may feature performance-related bonuses for his 11 grand prix wins, six further podium finishes and second place in the 2016 drivers’ championship but either way, the new £40m wage would have moved him ahead of McIlroy and pushed the ‘big five’ on the Forbes list.
Footballers Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, basketball stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant and tennis great Roger Federer have been comfortably clear in the rich list for the last two years, with Durant’s 60.6m US dollars (£47m) representing 2017’s barrier for entry to the exclusive club.
Hamilton’s earnings from endorsements were estimated at another 8m dollars (£6.2m), meaning any significant performance bonuses would lift him ahead of Durant.
Federer (64m dollars, £49.7m) could also be in his sights, though the Swiss should see his numbers rise this year after winning Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Hamilton would have needed around £16m in bonus payments to challenge Messi for third place.
Britain and Ireland
McIlroy is set to drop back somewhat – the year covered by Forbes includes his 10m US dollar FedEx Cup win – and little has changed for Real Madrid and Wales star Gareth Bale, who was joint 24th in the 2017 list on 34m dollars (£26.4m).
The man alongside Bale could be the one to challenge Hamilton. Conor McGregor was already upwardly mobile and has estimated he made around 100m dollars from his boxing debut against Floyd Mayweather in August last year – enough to threaten the very top of Forbes’ list, especially as the face of EA Sports’ UFC games to boot.
Combat sports appear to be where the money is – boxer Anthony Joshua cracked last year’s top 100 after earning a reported £15m from his world title win over Wladimir Klitschko, and has since defended his belts against Carlos Takam, Joseph Parker and Alexander Povetkin.
Hamilton, who arrived south of the American border on Wednesday, needs to finish only seventh to be sure of his fifth title.
But the Briton, 70 points clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel with only 75 remaining, will want to make up for his failure to win last weekend by taking the chequered flag on Sunday.
Verstappen, 21, was victorious in Mexico last year, and the Red Bull driver, fresh from his impressive run from 18th to second in Austin, Texas, believes he has the car underneath him to triumph again.
“This is definitely the best chance for me to win out of the last three races,” he said.
“In qualifying, we may not have a chance, but in the race we seem to be working well, so I expect this to better than Austin.
“But Lewis will want to win, so I don’t think that will change anything.”
The high altitude of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, which sits 2,200 metres above sea level, acts as an equaliser in engine performance.
Therefore, the Renault in the back of Verstappen’s Red Bull, usually inferior to the might of Mercedes and Ferrari, is likely to be closer this weekend.
“Performance at altitude is more about mechanical grip, and our car is very good mechanically,” Verstappen added.
“That is why we will be more competitive on this track than others, even if there is a super-long straight. Physically, the high altitude is not a big deal.”
Hamilton clinched his fourth championship in Mexico last year, despite crossing the line only ninth after colliding with Vettel on the opening lap.
Vettel, who made the eighth and ninth errors of his mistake-ridden campaign in the US last weekend, must also win on Sunday to stand any chance of stopping Hamilton.
But the German driver arrives here under a cloud following his recent troubles.
For much of this season, Ferrari have had the superior machinery over Mercedes, but it is Hamilton who is set to prevail with, for the second season running, two rounds to spare.
Would Verstappen have won the title for the Scuderia?
“I am not driving for them, so I don’t want to comment,” came his diplomatic response.
Asked why he felt Vettel had made so many mistakes this season, he replied: “I can only look at myself so it makes no sense to speak about another driver. I don’t want to p*** anybody off.”