Valtteri Bottas scored an important pole position for Mercedes as his team-mate Lewis Hamilton crashed out in qualifying.
New champion Lewis Hamilton was one of the favourites for pole after leading Friday practice sessions, but Hamilton crashed heavily at the high-speed Ferradura right-hander on his first flying lap in Q1.
Hamilton lost the rear of the car suddenly mid-corner and slammed hard into the barriers rear first.
He apologised to his team on the radio before emerging unscathed, but took no further part in the session.
Hamilton’s first Q1 exit since the 2016 Belgian Grand Prix cleared the way for Bottas to battle the Ferraris for top spot.
Bottas was fastest in Q1, but trailed Sebastian Vettel in Q2 and after the first runs in Q3.
Vettel failed to improve on his final run in Q3, but Bottas found 0.120 seconds to beat Vettel to pole by just 0.038 seconds, with a best lap of one minute, 08.322 seconds.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was third quickest, just under two tenths slower than Vettel, while Max Verstappen’s Red Bull was the only other car to lap below one minute, 09 seconds in fourth.
Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull was fifth, but he faces a 10-place grid penalty for an MGU-H change ahead of practice.
Sergio Perez’s Force India completed the top six, ahead of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda, the Renaults of Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr, and the Williams of Felipe Massa, who almost crashed after gesticulating at Sainz in Q3.
Esteban Ocon failed to make Q3 for the first time since Singapore Grand Prix, missing the cut by less than a tenth to Sainz.
Romain Grosjean broke into the one minute, 09 seconds for the first time this weekend and briefly occupied a provisional Q3 spot, but fell to P12 as others improved at the end of Q2.
Stoffel Vandoorne’s McLaren-Honda and Grosjean’s Haas team-mate Kevin Magnussen ended up P13 and P14 respectively, both paying the price for failing to break through the one minute, 10 seconds barrier.
Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley was P15, but he used Q2 to practice his start procedures rather than set a time, knowing he faces a 10-place grid penalty for an MGU-H change ahead of practice.
Hartley managed to drag himself narrowly into Q2 at the expense of Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein and Toro Rosso team-mate Pierre Gasly, who all lapped in one minute, 10.6 seconds in Q1.
Wehrlein was left feeling disappointed to miss the cut by just 0.053 seconds. Gasly, who faces a 10-place grid penalty for an MGU-H change ahead of practice, missed it by 0.061 seconds.
Hamilton’s crash gave Williams extra time to finish preparing Lance Stroll’s car after changing its engine and gearbox ahead of the session, but Stroll could only manage P18, less than a tenth slower than Gasly.
Stroll will take a five-place grid penalty for that gearbox swap.
Marcus Ericsson was another tenth further back in the second Sauber, beating only Hamilton’s Mercedes, which failed to set a time.
So a brilliant qualifying result for Valtteri Bottas. His third pole position this season when the pressure was on after his team-mate crashed out. The Mercedes driver delivered the result and the fight is on for the runner-up position in the championship.
Qualifying positions, Brazilian Grand Prix:
1 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1m08.322s
2 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 0.038s
3 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 0.216s
4 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Renault 0.603s
5 Sergio Perez Force India-Mercedes 1.276s
6 Fernando Alonso McLaren-Honda 1.295s
7 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 1.381s
8 Carlos Sainz Renault 1.483s
9 Felipe Massa Williams-Mercedes 1.519s
10 Esteban Ocon Force India-Mercedes 1.508s
11 Romain Grosjean Haas-Ferrari 1.557s
12 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren-Honda 1.794s
13 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1.832s
14 Pascal Wehrlein Sauber-Ferrari 2.356s
15 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull-Renault 1.008s
16 Marcus Ericsson Sauber-Ferrari 2.553s
17 Lance Stroll Williams-Mercedes 2.454s
18 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso-Renault –
19 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso-Renault 2.364s
20 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes