Sebastian Vettel took his tenth pole position of the season in Abu Dhabi as he bids to become the youngest-ever Formula 1 champion.
Lewis Hamilton, who is still mathematically in with a chance of taking the title himself, qualified second under the floodlight of the Yas Marina circuit whilst championship leader Fernando Alonso qualified third.
Reigning world champion Jenson Button took fourth ahead of Mark Webber, who may now be seeing his championship hopes slip away. The Aussie starts tomorrow's title-deciding race from fifth on the grid and, crucially, behind Alonso.
Felipe Massa and Rubens Barrichello start sixth and seventh, with Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg and Vitaly Petrov make up the top ten.
Final practice in Abu Dhabi this morning ended with the four remaining championship contenders top of the timesheets. Sebastian Vettel was fastest, with Mark Webber second, Lewis Hamilton third, and Fernando Alonso fourth. It was all nicely set-up for this qualifying session, which was hyped as the most important of the season.
As qualifying got underway, all eyes were on the top four. Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso were all switching fastest times, and Webber seemed a little off the pace of the rest in these early stages. Jenson Button, Felipe Massa, and the two Mercedes drivers also made brief appearances in the upper reaches of the top 10 in Q1, but there was no runner who had an outright monopoly on qualifying pace.
For what it's worth, it was Fernando Alonso who claimed the fastest Q1 lap time. Nico Rosberg, was second with a late flying lap, and Vettel, Hamilton and Webber were behind the Mercedes, in that order.
Jaime Alguersuari won a battle of the Toro Rosso drivers for the final place in Q2, as teammate Sebastien Buemi went out of qualifying with the usual suspects. Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen make up an all-Lotus tenth row, followed by the two Virgin drivers, led by Timo Glock. Bruno Senna and Christian Klien will start from the back row of the grid for tomorrow's race.
The two Ferrari drivers were first out as Q2 got underway, but as the track cooled, it seemed everybody was able to pull out a quick lap. Jenson Button spent much of the session top of the timesheets, but drivers like Vitaly Petrov and Rubens Barrichello were hanging around third place as the session progressed.
Hamilton was missing from the higher echelons though, struggling to put a decent flying lap together, whilst the other three title contenders occupied the top four positions, along with Button.
With four minutes of Q2 remaining, Hamilton was sitting seventeenth, and had more drama on his out-lap. He went across the kerb, knocking over a bollard, as he tried to get past Felipe Massa on the build-up to a crucial flying lap. Massa was on a flying lap at the time, which may get him into more hot water with the race stewards. Hamilton's flying lap got him up to second, and out of any immediate danger of missing out on Q3.
Sebastian Vettel was fastest in Q2 – the only driver to lap in less than 100 seconds. Button, Rosberg, Webber, Hamilton and Alonso lined-up second to sixth.
Robert Kubica lost his 100% Q3 appearance record as he finished the session eleventh. Kamui Kobayashi, Adrian Sutil, Nick Heidfeld, Nico Hulkenberg, Tonio Liuzzi and Alguersuari also failed to make it through, and will start twelfth to seventeenth tomorrow. Kubica's Renault teammate Petrov got through to Q3.
The last 10 minutes of qualifying in 2010 began when Rubens Barrichello entered the tunnel at the end of the Yas Marina pit lane, with the destination of pole position far from certain.
Hamilton was first of the title contenders to set a flying lap in Q3, a 1:39.582. Alonso was half a second behind with his first attempt, also slower than Jenson Button. Webber had issues on his first flying lap, over eight seconds of the pace of Hamilton, whilst Vettel lingered in the garage before heading out on track.
Webber improved with his second attempt, jumping up to third place. Then Vettel finished his flying lap. It was a 1:39.448, giving the German provisional pole. He knocked another tenth of a second off his lap the next time round, with a 1:39.394.
Webber failed to improve on his final attempt, and neither did Vettel. The checkered flag had fallen, but Hamilton and Alonso were both on flying lap. Hamilton was 0.008 seconds ahead of Vettel's time as he completed the first two sectors of the lap, but could not pole. Alonso took his third place seconds later.
If the race finishes in the qualifying order, Fernando Alonso will collect his third Formula 1 title.