Lewis Hamilton captured an emphatic pole position to rub salt into the wounds of title rival Sebastian Vettel, who qualified last with a power unit problem.
Vettel, who is fighting to keep his championship hopes realistically alive this weekend, pulled into his garage in Q1 with a suspected turbocharger problem and was unable to rejoin the session.
Kimi Räikkönen remained as the lone Ferrari challenger around a circuit that appeared in practice to suit the red cars more than Mercedes, but the Finn made an error on his final qualifying lap to present Hamilton with an open goal to start from the front of the grid.
Hamilton credited his pole to the work of his team on the car, which was woefully slow during practice.
“Today we had no idea how it was going to go,” Hamilton said. “Somehow we turned it around.
“The engineers did such a great job yesterday. It’s a real surprise to be up here with these guys.”
Race pace remains a question for Mercedes, with both Ferrari and Red Bull Racing exhibiting faster long-run performance during practice, but Hamilton is holding out hope this too has been rectified by his car’s pre-qualifying changes.
“Obviously we’re going to have a tough battle with these guys (Ferrari and Red Bull Racing),” he said. “I’m hoping that our car has moved in the right direction in the race run, but we’ll see tomorrow.”
Kimi Räikkönen, his ultimate lap 0.045 seconds slower than Hamilton’s, was crestfallen after losing pole position, but the Finn remained pragmatic about his prospects for the grand prix.
“Obviously when you get that close it’s a disappointment,” he said. “[But] I made the most out of it.
“The car’s been behaving nicely all weekend; we’ll try to get further than 100 metres tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do.
“Obviously it’s a long start, so if you make a good start, you’ll benefit quite a bit from it — it’s a pretty tight first two corners, so we’ll try to make sure we do the first two corners well.”
Max Verstappen qualified third, pipping teammate Daniel Ricciardo on the Dutchman’s 20th birthday.
“I think it’s good for us in qualifying to be in this position,” he said. “It’s always good to drive on this track, it’s a lot of fun — and on my birthday to be third here is perfect.”
Valtteri Bottas was a distant fifth, his best time 0.6 seconds slower than Hamilton’s pole position and easily bettered by both Red Bull Racing drivers.
Concerning for the Finn is that Malaysia was the fifth qualifying session in six races that the gap to his teammate has been greater than half a second.
Esteban Ocon in sixth and Stoffel Vandoorne in seventh had storming sessions in their intra-team battles.
Ocon’s Force India teammate Sergio Perez qualified ninth and 0.180 seconds slower than the Frenchman, while McLaren’s Fernando Alonso qualified P10 and 0.122 seconds slower than teammate Vandoorne.
Splitting the two sets of teammates was Nico Hülkenberg, who qualified eighth for Renault.
Divers complained of traffic as all bar the three fastest cars embarked on a final qualifying effort as late as possible to take advantage of the track in its best condition.
McLaren demonstrated that soon to be ex-engine partner Honda is slowly making progress — both Stoffel Vandoorne and Fernando Alonso put their cars into the top 10 despite the Sepang track’s energy-demanding long straights.
Williams, on the other hand, despite being equipped with the class-leading Mercedes engines, had both its drivers eliminated. Felipe Massa qualified P11 and Lance Stroll P13, the duo separated by Renault’s Jolyon Palmer, who was again bested by his teammate.
Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz and Pierre Gasly were knocked out in P14 and P15, with debutant Gasly just 0.15 seconds off the pace of his more experiences teammate.
With no threat of the forecast rain, the first qualifying session was a straightforward dry-weather affair, with Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing all ambitious enough to set times using the soft rather than supersoft tyre.
Daniel Ricciardo was the only exception, the Australian Red Bull Racing driver instead using the quickest compound, though he nonetheless set the slowest time of the top-team drivers.
Missing from the permutations, however, was Sebastian Vettel, who limped back to his grid box halfway through the session with a suspected turbocharger problem.
Vettel watched the clock run down from inside his car, and when the team was unable to rectify the problem before the chequered flag fell, Vettel’s last-place qualification was confirmed.
Vettel’s Ferrari was afflicted with a power unit problem that necessitated a change of parts during Saturday practice, two hours before qualifying.
The German is on his maximum fourth part for all but one of the power unit’s six constituent components, meaning any further changes to the engine will likely trigger a 10-place grid penalty.
Ferrari is likely to refresh Vettel’s old power unit parts overnight given any grid-place penalty will gave no effect on his starting position.
Sauber duo Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson qualified ahead of Vettel in P18 and P19, while Haas partners Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were eliminated in P16 and P17 respectively.