Lewis Hamilton will have to pass both Red Bulls and both Ferraris to maintain his record of winning in every season of his career after Max Verstappen secured pole position for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Hamilton, who earlier escaped a penalty for a red-flag infringement in final practice at the sport's season-ending race, qualified only fifth.
A year on from last season's contentious race which cost Hamilton a record eighth world crown, the seven-time world champion has moved to banish the memory of his darkest day, insisting his thirst for the sport remains unquenched.
But there is little doubt his enthusiasm will be enhanced by not having to drive his current under-performing Mercedes.
Hamilton, 37, will participate in a tyre test here on Tuesday before handing the keys to this year's unruly machine back to his employer.
"I am looking forward to the end of Tuesday which is the last time I will have to drive this thing," he said.
"I don't ever plan to drive it again. It will not be one of the cars I request to have in my contract.
"Everyone in the team knows the problems and where we have gone wrong. I am pretty confident that they are not going to build the next car with any of those characteristics."
Hamilton will start Sunday's 58-lap race as the only driver in Formula One history to end every season with at least one victory.
But he looks set to lose that unique record, with Red Bull locking out the front row at a track which suits their all-conquering machinery.
George Russell, who qualified sixth, dominated in Interlagos a week ago to claim the maiden win of his career and Mercedes' first of the season, but, under the thousands of bulbs that light up the Yas Marina Circuit, it was a sobering evening for the Silver Arrows, with Hamilton almost seven tenths adrift.
Hamilton survived an investigation after failing to slow for a red flag.
He passed two cars at Turn 5 as the session was temporarily suspended when Pierre Gasly suffered a puncture.
McLaren driver Lando Norris reported over the radio: "Hamilton overtook the Haas as well under the red flag."
In the constructors' championship, Mercedes still hope to beat Ferrari for second place but team principal Toto Wolff said of qualifying, "Today just turned into a toilet day. We didn't get the job done. We went backwards and Red Bull and Ferrari took a step forward."
- with PA