Mercedes clearly had not reckoned on finishing top of the standings, despite a strong showing in qualifying all season long.
Championship leader Vettel had laid down the gauntlet with an impressive opening lap in Q3 - and beat it again with his last run - but Hamilton bettered it.
Romain Grosjean was two-tenths of a second away in third, in front of Nico Rosberg, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. Grosjean's Lotus later failed a floor test but he avoided a penalty after stewards accepted that it was caused by accidental damage on the circuit.
"Pole?" asked a disbelieving Hamilton when the news of his lap was relayed to him.
"Yes," replied his race engineer, "We're as surprised as you, mate."
It had looked an open race for top spot at a blisteringly hot Hungaroring, with Red Bull top of yesterday's timesheets, Grosjean fastest in the morning ahead of qualifying, and Mercedes boasting one-lap pedigree.
They sailed through Q1 and Q2 with ease. In the first part of the session, meanwhile, Paul di Resta missed out in an uncooperative Force India, while Q2 claimed Jenson Button once again, frustrated in the McLaren.
Mark Webber's KERS failed in Q2, but although he had enough in reserve to reach the top 10 shootout, he did not post a time in Q3. A man who may yet take his race seat next season, Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo, also declined to complete a lap in the final session, allowing Sergio Perez to coast to eighth by setting a time on medium tyres.
He may yet be in good shape to make ground as drivers on soft tyres ahead of him contend with tyre wear. And with Mercedes not expected to be the quickest car on Sunday, it could make for a tricky, tactical race on Sunday at a track not known for overtaking.
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- Motor Racing
- Romain Grosjean
- Nico Rosberg
- Fernando Alonso
- Kimi Raikkonen