Nico Rosberg upset the apple cart by claiming his ninth pole position of the season ahead of the United States Grand Prix.
Mercedes team-mate and title rival Lewis Hamilton had enjoyed a clean sweep in practice, was comfortably quickest in the first part of qualifying at the Circuit of the Americas and appeared odds-on to claim the top spot on the grid.
Rosberg, however, hit back in Q2 and notably when it mattered the most in the top-10 shoot-out by finishing four tenths of a second faster than Hamilton to claim the 13th pole overall of his F1 career.
Rosberg declared himself “very happy” at the end of a “great day”.
The 29-year-old German said: “I arrived in qualifying with a car I was happy with, and although it wasn’t easy out there to get everything right, it worked out today.”
Hamilton, meanwhile, bemoaned an issue with his brakes as he said: “Nico did a great job, but I really struggled with braking. Even if that hadn’t been the case, Nico was just too quick today.”
It was a qualifying session tweaked by the FIA in light of the demise of Caterham and Marussia over the last nine days, with their financial woes forcing them into administration.
With only 18 cars in the field, the lowest number for a race since the 2005 Monaco Grand Prix, it was decided four cars would exit Q1 and Q2 rather than six, so retaining the top-10 shoot-out.
Behind the Mercedes duo, with Rosberg claiming a crucial role given Hamilton’s four-race winning streak of late to open up a 17-point cushion, were the Williams pair of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was fifth quickest, followed by Fernando Alonso in his Ferrari and Jenson Button in his McLaren, although the Briton will drop five places due to a gearbox change.
Team-mate Kevin Magnussen, Kimi Raikkonen in his Ferrari and Sauber of Adrian Sutil all move up a place from their qualifying positions of eighth, ninth and tenth respectively. For Sauber, it was the first time this season either of their drivers has reached the top ten.
Pastor Maldonado lifted his Lotus up to 11th, but team-mate Romain Grosjean qualified 18th and last.
Force India’s Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were 12th and 13th, with Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat 14th, but the Russian, in taking a seventh change of engine, with only five allowed in a campaign, incurs a ten-place penalty. He drops from 14th to 18th, the remaining six places to be served next weekend in Brazil.
Team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne and Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez will move up a place to 14th and 15th, with Grosjean 16th. The Frenchman climbs two places as Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel will start from the pit lane.
The reigning four-time champion did eventually take part as it had been suggested he would not do so after receiving a complete change of his Red Bull’s power unit this weekend. Despite the penalty, which would have been applied even if he had qualified on pole, Red Bull opted to send out Vettel for a nominal three-lap run.