Daniel Ricciardo beat team-mate Max Verstappen to pole position as Red Bull locked out the front row of the grid for the first time in five years, but it is Hamilton who stands on the brink of emulating the great Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, with his fifth title on Sunday.
The Mercedes star will be crowned champion if he finishes seventh or higher, while Vettel has to win to stand any chance of taking the title fight on to Brazil.
The Ferrari man’s chances appear bleak, with Vettel, lining up in fourth, now having to navigate his way past both Hamilton, and the rampant Red Bull cars to take what would seem as an improbable victory.
Hamilton was clearly overjoyed to be ahead of Vettel, and within striking range of the Red Bull pair, after Mercedes were well of the pace in practice on Friday.
Now, the biggest threat to the Englishman’s probable coronation will be the 800-yard sprint to the opening corner at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, and whether he can stay out of trouble.
Last year, Verstappen, Hamilton and Vettel went three abreast into the first corner, before the latter collided with his Mercedes rival at the third bend.
Hamilton limped to ninth, still taking the title, but the coming together was at the front of his mind in the moments after qualifying.
“We saw what happened last year with the red car behind,” he said. “So, I don’t know what will happen at the start tomorrow.”
Later, Hamilton, 0.135 seconds slower than Ricciardo, insisted he will not change his approach when the lights go out on Sunday.
“It is very rare that I make silly and rash decisions when it comes to these scenarios,” the 33-year-old added.
“It really depends how we get away, but third position is a nice place to start as you get a good tow from the guys ahead.
“I’m going to be fighting to gain at least one position. That would be helpful, but I don’t mind those (Red Bull) guys being where they are because that takes the points away from Sebastian.”
The Red Bull cars have been flying all weekend in Mexico City’s thin air, but for all the money, it looked as though it would be Verstappen, and not Ricciardo, who would claim pole.
Fastest in all three practice sessions, for Verstappen, 21, it would have been the first of his career, and enough to beat Vettel’s decade-long record as the sport’s youngest pole-sitter, only for Ricciardo to edge him out by just 0.026 seconds.
The Dutchman was clearly frustrated by the result, deliberately bumping the second-place board with his car as he arrived on the start-finish straight, and then bemoaning problems with his Red Bull machinery.
“The whole qualifying was crap,” he said. “We had the same problems from practice yesterday.”
As for Ricciardo, he could hardly hide his delight at sealing the third pole of his career, and his first outside of Monaco, following a recent run of bad results.
“I’m holding a lot of emotion in,” the Australian said. “I’ve got to save a lot of energy for the race.”