Lewis Hamilton's slim hopes of a second drivers' championship flickered when he secured pole position for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Formula One leader Sebastian Vettel was penalized to the back of the grid on Saturday.
Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, clocked 1 minute, 40.630 seconds in his McLaren on the Yas Marina circuit, 0.348 seconds quicker than Red Bull's Mark Webber.
Vettel was third fastest, but because he stopped his car on the track soon after qualifying, he was called to a meeting with race stewards. Hours later, they ruled the Red Bull driver failed to have enough fuel in his tank to be tested after the session. As a result, he was excluded from qualifying but allowed to start at the back of the grid.
A similar fate befell Hamilton at the Spanish Grand Prix in May. He secured pole but the team forced him to stop the car on the track. The FIA disqualified him and made him start the race last. He finished eighth.
Hamilton, last year's Abu Dhabi champion, was naturally excited at his fourth pole of the season.
"It's the first time for a long time we've been ahead of the Red Bulls at the start of the race," he said. "The team has done a fantastic job all weekend. I don't know why the car works so well here ... I guess it just suits the track."
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, 13 points behind Vettel in the drivers' standings with three races remaining, slumped to seventh. The Spaniard has struggled all weekend with pace, and last-minute changes by his team failed to improve the car's performance.
Pastor Maldonado of Williams will start third followed by Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus and Jenson Button of McLaren.
Vettel's qualifying session was anything but routine even before the stewards got involved, with brake problems limiting his first session to only two laps. He also grazed the wall at one point, briefly lost control in one turn, and then stopped on the track.
The German insisted he "was not sure what the issue was at the end" and vowed to give it his best on Sunday.
"One of the best ski jumpers of all times once said 'Every chance is an opportunity,' and as far as we are concerned there are still plenty of chances tomorrow," Vettel said.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said "for reasons yet to be fully understood, 850ml of the required one litre was pumped out of the car following post-race checks."
"We will need to make the most of Mark's strong front-row grid position and Sebastian will have a busy evening ahead of him," Horner said.
Vettel's problems could help Ferrari, which saw its title hopes suffer earlier in the day due to a poor qualifying session. Before the FIA ruling, Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali said he was "very disappointed" with the team's effort.
"We were unable to give our drivers a car with which they could compete for the front rows of the grid, despite all our best efforts here at the track and back at the factory in Maranello," Domenicali said.
"It's true that in the race we have almost always seen that the gap to the best is reduced, but we can't always hope for exceptional performances like the one Fernando produced last Sunday in India."
Vettel has won the past four races to overtake Alonso at the top of the drivers' standings, and is the clear favorite to pick up his third title. The Spaniard was second, and Raikkonen third, 67 points back. Webber was a further six points back, and Hamilton another two points behind.
Webber and Hamilton were just barely alive in the championship race, needing to win every race and hope Vettel doesn't finish to have a chance.
"We have three races. Let's try to win them," McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh told The Associated Press. "You have to have fairly poor performances from our competitors even if you win the last three races.
"It looks like Sebastian might have a bit of a problem. If we score 25 points tomorrow and Sebastian scores none, then we will start to get a little more jumpy about it."
Vettel cannot win the title this weekend but Red Bull can clinch its third consecutive constructors' title if Vettel wins and Webber finishes no worse than eighth, or the two finish second and third. Red Bull leads Ferrari by 91 points, and McLaren was a further 10 points behind.