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 disqualified and forced 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. Pastor Maldonado of Williams will start third followed by Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus and Jenson Button of McLaren.
Vettel was third fastest, but because he stopped his car soon after qualifying, he was called to a meeting with race stewards. They ruled that the Red Bull driver failed to have enough fuel in his tank to be tested after the session. 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. He secured pole but the team forced him to stop the car on the track. The FIA also disqualified him and made him start the race last. He finished eighth.
Hamilton, last year's Abu Dhabi champion, was happy with 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.
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 later in the session, briefly lost control in one turn, and then stopped on the track.
Vettel's problems could help Ferrari, which was saw its title hopes dip because of 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 another six points back and Hamilton another two points behind.
Webber and Hamilton need 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.