Hamilton, who clinched his fourth Formula 1 title at the last round in Mexico, lost control of his Mercedes at 160mph on his very first lap.
Following a very light sprinkling of rain, the 32-year-old Englishman thudded into the tyre barrier at turn six, and remained in his cockpit for some moments with advertising hoardings on top of his car.
Hamilton took time to regain his composure following the high-speed crash – informing his team that he was not injured – before walking away from the Mercedes wreck.
Hamilton sustained significant damage to his car – with the front left of his Silver Arrows bearing the brunt of the impact – and he will now start today’s race, the penultimate of his title-winning season, from the back of the grid.
Valtteri Bottas took advantage of his team-mate’s dramatic demise to edge out Sebastian Vettel for pole position. Hamilton was on hand to congratulate Bottas on securing his first pole since July’s Austrian Grand Prix.
“It is very unusual from me, but it shows we are all human,” Hamilton said. “I’m okay. It happened really quickly.
“Challenges are what makes life interesting and overcoming them makes life meaningful. I just need to take whatever bubble of negativity from this experience and move forward and grow.”
Hamilton qualified only 18th at this race in 2009 and fought back through the field to finish third. It’s a memory he’s hoping to draw on.
“Years ago I came back from quite far behind and had a great race,” he added. “I will try to have as much fun as possible.”
Hamilton, who has enjoyed a largely faultless campaign, topped both practice sessions here on Friday, with his Mercedes team appearing on course to dominate the last but one race of the season.
But it was left to Bottas to provide a much-needed boost to the sport’s world championship-winning team after eight staff members were robbed at gunpoint on Friday night.
The Finnish driver delivered in the closing moments at the Interlagos circuit to beat Vettel to pole by just four hundredths of a second.
“I spoke to the team this morning and said I would try to put the car on pole to cheer them up, so I am glad it has happened,” Bottas, who is 15 points behind Vettel in the race for second, said.
The incident took place at 10pm local time shortly after the crew – consisting mainly of mechanics – had left the Interlagos circuit. One of the staff had a gun held to his head while shots were also fired by the armed men. Watches, laptops and passports were stolen in the hold-up.
“First of all, I am happy that everybody is in one piece and nothing happened physically to anyone, but obviously it was a pretty bad situation for them to be in,” added Bottas.
“Lewis going out in the beginning was a shame, but I’m glad I could stand up for the team.”
Kimi Raikkonen will line up in third ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. The Dutchman’s team-mate Daniel Ricciardo qualified fifth, but he will be demoted ten places following a series of engine penalties.
Ricciardo’s penalty promotes Force India’s Sergio Perez to fifth, with McLaren driver Fernando Alonso to line up in sixth.