VALENCIA, Spain (Reuters) - Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel took a big step towards becoming Formula One's first repeat winner of the season after qualifying on pole position for Sunday's European Grand Prix for the third year in a row.
The 24-year-old double world champion whooped with joy over the team radio after beating McLaren's Lewis Hamilton to the top slot with a best time of one minute 38.086 seconds in the Valencia heat.
"Oh yes, we did the right thing at the end. That was a challenge, boys," shouted the German after being told that Hamilton and "the rest of the world" was behind him on the provisional grid.
His 33rd career pole lifted Vettel to equal third place with four times champion Alain Prost and the late Jim Clark in the sport's all-time records.
"I had a good feeling on the last lap, put everything in and it was good enough for pole," he told reporters.
Team principal Christian Horner said it was more than good: "He strung it all together...he put together a perfect lap, probably his best lap this year I would say."
Hamilton, winner in Canada two weeks ago but whose team have yet to triumph in Valencia, was surprised to have made second on the grid - a hefty 0.324 seconds behind - after a difficult time in Friday practice.
"I expected to be further back," said the 2008 world champion, who leads Spaniard Fernando Alonso by two points after seven races with Vettel a point further adrift.
"We had to make some adjustments and it seemed to work. I am surprised," added the Briton, whose team mate Jenson Button qualified ninth.
Venezuela's Pastor Maldonado, a surprise winner of the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona last month, was an impressive third for Williams.
The two Lotuses of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen, who have been going well in hot weather this season, made the most of the 46 degree centigrade track temperature to take fourth and fifth place.
Hopes of an unprecedented eighth different winner in the first eight races faded, with the top three all having won this season and no winner in four previous races in Valencia having ever started lower than third.
Germany's Nico Rosberg was sixth in a Mercedes and local favourite Alonso was back in 11th, with Ferrari president Luca Di Montezemolo watching from the garage on a rare race visit.
Alonso's Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa was back in 13th, a place behind Mercedes' Michael Schumacher, while Vettel's Australian team mate Mark Webber failed to get through the first session and starts 19th.
"He's going to have to go for it," said Horner of Webber's chances at a tight track that has produced processional races in the past.
"He's had a wretched day today and very unlucky to have a hydraulic issue with the DRS (rear wing) that wouldn't allow it to activate. He came close to making the cut, it was a really good lap... he's going to have a busy race from there."
Caterham benefited from Webber's woes with Heikki Kovalainen qualifying 16th and ahead of both the Toro Rosso cars.
Marussia's German driver Timo Glock missed qualifying with a stomach bug and remains a doubt for Sunday's race, with the decision in the hands of stewards as much as doctors and his tail-end team.