It took Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel 1min41secs to set his fastest qualifying lap under the Yas Marina floodlights last night. It took race stewards another four and a half hours to reach a decision which could prove critical to the destination of this year's drivers' championship.
Vettel, who leads Ferrari's Fernando Alonso by 13 points going heading into today's race, was sensationally excluded from the qualifying results after his car was found to have "insufficient fuel for sampling". It meant the German was relegated from third on the grid all the way back to 24th and last. Despite a car which is vastly superior to those around it, the 25 year-old will do brilliantly to fight back and claim a decent haul of points.
It also represents a huge reprieve for Alonso, who had only been able to claim seventh on the grid. Instead of starting four places behind Vettel, the Spaniard will now start 18 places in front of his title rival.
The length of time it took stewards to arrive at their decision had attracted a certain amount of criticism. As thousands of paying spectators who had attended the session drifted off into the night, and millions more watching on television around the world, they were completely clueless as to where the two title protagonists would actually start the race.
But when a decision of this magnitude is to be made, it is as well to make the correct one. Article 6.6.2 of the FIA's Technical Regulations requires that a car must be able to "return to the pits under its own power" and provide a one-litre sample of fuel. And Red Bull had aroused the suspicions of the stewards after ordering Vettel to stop the car on his in-lap, with team principal Christian Horner admitting it was related to a fuel issue.
Thoughts were immediately cast back to Lewis Hamilton in Barcelona earlier this year, where he took pole only to be relegated to the back of the field for the same infringement. It was one of the reasons Hamilton's title challenge ended as soon as it did.
Could this decision ultimately cost Vettel his third successive crown, just when he looked to be on a roll having won four straight races? It is certainly a huge boon for Alonso who has been miles off the pace for most of the weekend. Despite Ferrari breaking curfew two nights in succession to bolt on upgrades, Alonso's car was described by BBC pundit David Coulthard yesterday as "not so much a prancing horse, more like a bucking bronco".
Now he starts sixth and, if he can keep his bucking bronco on the track, has a golden opportunity to eat into Vettel's lead.
Either way, it is Hamilton, who won here last year, who will start from pole today after a sensational lap of his own.
Perhaps it was the presence of Britain's golden girl, Jessica Ennis, in the paddock that inspired him to add a little extra wattage to the biggest permanent lighting system in the world last night. More likely it was the trip he made to rural India earlier this week on behalf of UNICEF. Or the fact that he has his cousins, who recently lost their mother to cancer, as his guests in Abu Dhabi this weekend.
Whatever it was, something has inspired Hamilton this week. The 2008 world champion has been in splendid form both on and off the track, as if a weight has been lifted off his shoulders. He has spoken well, and driven even better, carrying his strong form in practice into qualifying yesterday. His pole lap yesterday, which ended Red Bull's run of three consecutive poles, was a massive 0.348 secs faster than Red Bull's Mark Webber and 0.6 secs faster than his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button, who could only take sixth on the grid before Vettel's demotion saw him gain one place.
"I'm very excited. Very excited," Hamilton beamed in the press conference afterwards. "It's the first time for a long time to be ahead of the Red Bulls. Normally I see the tail of them at the start of the race. I know the race will be tough because they have great race pace. I hope we are strong enough to fight. The car has been beautiful all weekend."
Webber, sitting next to him, said for his part that he hoped Hamilton made a poor start. "Lewis's starts lately haven't been phenomenal," observed the Australian, correctly. He shouldn't count on it though. Hamilton has looked in fine fettle here.
However they fare, it will be the respective performances of Vettel and Alonso which capture the headlines after a decision which could change the course of Formula One history.
Meanwhile, speculation that the presence of BSkyB executives in Abu Dhabi this weekend, including chief executive Jeremy Darroch and recently re-elected board member James Murdoch, was due to "secret talks" with teams over a possible takeover of the sport was dismissed as nonsense by McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh.