Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc took pole position for the Singapore Grand Prix with Max Verstappen only eighth.
In drying conditions, Verstappen, who has his first shot of securing back-to-back titles, appeared to be on course to take pole with his final throw of the dice.
But the Red Bull driver was under instruction from his team to abort his final lap, and he will start Sunday’s race way down the order.
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“I don’t get it, mate,” said Verstappen on the radio. “What the f*** is this about?”
But it is understood Verstappen was told to stop because he would have been short of the required one litre of fuel.
Sergio Perez took second in the other Red Bull, with Lewis Hamilton third.
Verstappen will be crowned champion if he wins and sets the fastest lap, and team-mate Perez and Ferrari’s Leclerc finish lower than fourth and eighth respectively.
But the Dutch driver, who holds a 116-point lead, faces an improbable task of taking the championship under the lights of the Marina Bay Circuit given his lowly grid slot.
Hamilton missed out on pole by just 0.054 seconds but the seven-time world champion is set to face further action from the stewards for taking part in qualifying with his nose stud in.
Hamilton wore the offending item of jewellery during practice and was summoned to see the stewards ahead of qualifying.
But the 37-year-old could be seen wearing the piercing as he conducted his post-qualifying interview moments after stepping out of his Mercedes.
Hamilton, a four-time winner in Singapore, said: “I was pushing so hard. It was so, so close. I thought we could be fighting for first place but I didn’t have grip on that last lap.
“I am grateful to be on the second row and the team for continuing to push. We keep our head down and hopefully tomorrow will be a better day.
“We knew the car would be stronger here than in Monza, but to lose out by just a small bit is OK, we get up and fight again.”
The Briton, who wore his nose piercing during qualifying, said: “I am not trying to make a statement. I have had my jewellery and my nose stud for years.
“We had that huge commotion at the beginning of the year. At the time, it was soldered in, so it didn’t come loose.
“For many races, they gave me an exemption until I could find a solution. I got it taken out, and it got infected because of that.
“I was continuing with this infection and I had a blood blister. I went back to have the blood blister fixed, because there was pus and blood.
“I put this stud in, and then in the last two weeks it has started to heal and they asked that I keep it in.
“I have got a letter from the doctor. I have tried my best. Hopefully they will be sensible. The stewards should be there to keep us safe and this is not a safety issue.
“It is crazy that we have to talk about something so small. I take everything out and that. At this point, I don’t really care to be honest.”
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz qualified fourth for Ferrari, one place ahead of Fernando Alonso. Lando Norris was sixth for McLaren.
It was a Saturday to forget for George Russell after he was eliminated from Q2.
The Englishman has enjoyed an impressive opening season as Hamilton’s team-mate at Mercedes, finishing in the top five at every race he has completed.
But Russell will struggle to keep that impressive record intact after qualifying only 11th.
Alex Albon is back in the cockpit this weekend – three weeks after he suffered respiratory failure and was left on a ventilator following complications from surgery. The London-born driver finished ahead of his soon-to-be-departing team-mate Nicholas Latifi, but was only 19th of the 20 runners.