Nico Hulkenberg caused a sensation by claiming Williams’ first pole position for five and a half years in Brazil.
Not since the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in May 2005 have the Grove-based marque claimed top spot, but Hulkenberg made the most of the unusual conditions at Interlagos to clinch pole.
Behind the 23-year-old German are the four main title contenders in Red Bull duo Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, along with McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
That prompted the drivers to switch from intermediates, which they had used throughout Q1, Q2 and for the first run in Q3, to slicks.
And it was Hulkenberg, whose future with the team is up in the air, who mastered the circuit to send waves of joy throughout Williams’ garage.
Team-mate Rubens Barrichello could only finish sixth, followed by Renault’s Robert Kubica, Michael Schumacher in his Mercedes, Felipe Massa for Ferrari and the second Renault of Vitaly Petrov.
Jenson Button’s faint hopes of holding onto his title are virtually over after the Briton could only qualify 11th.
With Button 42 points behind Alonso, only a victory will do for the 30-year-old, but he now faces a mountain he is unlikely to climb.
Button was knocked out of Q2 in the dying moments by Massa, and by the slender margin of just 0.088secs on a track where he clinched his crown just over a year ago.
Behind him will be Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi and another surprise in Nico Rosberg in his Mercedes, finding himself outqualified by team- mate Schumacher for only the fourth time this season.
Jaime Alguersuari starts 14th in his Toro Rosso, and although team-mate Sebastien Buemi was 15th, the Swiss will drop to 20th due to a five-place grid penalty for causing an avoidable accident in Korea 13 days ago.
In Q1 the weather may have been unpredictable as rain fell over some parts of the circuit, and at times differed in strength, but the end result was completely predictable.
The big loser, in more ways than one, was Force India’s Adrian Sutil as he was unable to claw his way out of the session.
Although qualifying 18th, the German drops to 23rd, also due to a five-place penalty as like Buemi he too was found guilty of causing an avoidable accident in the Korean Grand Prix.
Virgin Racing’s Timo Glock claimed the highest placing of the three new teams coming towards the end of their debut season.
Glock was followed by Lotus duo Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen, who all move up two places to 17th, 18th and 19th courtesy of the penalties for Buemi and Sutil.
Virgin’s Lucas di Grassi and Hispania’s Christian Klien move up one place to 21st and 22nd thanks to Sutil, who joins Hispania’s Bruno Senna on the last row after the Brazilian finished a woeful seven tenths of a second behind Klien.