Lewis Hamilton's spectacular but often controversial career suffered a new twist Saturday when he was stripped of pole for the Spanish Grand Prix because his McLaren team failed to give him enough fuel.
As a result, Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado of Williams will start from pole position for the first time after being promoted from second on the grid while Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, will start from the back.
The 27-year-old Briton was excluded from the qualifying results because he did not return to the pits with his McLaren car after setting his fastest lap.
Instead, he followed urgent orders transmitted by the team and stopped out on the track. He required assistance to return to the pits where a one litre fuel sample was to be taken.
A stewards meeting later decided that this was in breach of the regulations and excluded Hamilton, dismissing his team's argument that this had happened under circumstances of ‘force majeure'.
"The stewards heard from the team representative Sam Michael who stated that the car stopped on the circuit for reasons of force majeure," said a stewards statement.
"A team member had put an insufficient quantity of fuel into the car thereby resulting in the car having to be stopped on the circuit in order to be able to provide the required amount for sampling purposes.
"As the amount of fuel put into the car is under the complete control of the competitor the stewards cannot accept this as a case of force majeure."
McLaren accepted the decision.
"We accept that the stewards did not agree with our interpretation of force majeure. Our aim is now to maximise the points we can score tomorrow," said a team spokesman.
Maldonado will start at the front of the grid ahead of local hero, two-time champion Fernando Alonso in a Ferrari.
Prior to being told of his punishment, Hamilton had said that even if he was penalised for the team's misdemeanour he believed he could produce a competitive race performance.
"I think our long runs were not too bad," he said.
"The option tyre was not spectacular with the set-up we had, but we have made some changes so it should be better in that sense. The long run on the prime was very good, but then again so was it with the guys just behind me.
"Overtaking here is very, very tough as it has showed in previous years, but we do have DRS. I would hope we can overtake, but I would doubt it.
"But I would do everything I could to move forwards! Definitely the guy in front, the top two or three, generally have an easier job because they have a lot clearer air.
"But we will give it our all and we hope with improved pit stops, as well, we hope we can make steps forward."
McLaren team chief Martin Whitmarsh declined to explain precisely why Hamilton had been asked to stop.
"There was enough fuel to take a fuel sample, but we stopped the car. There was 1.3 litres of fuel taken out of the car," insisted Whitmarsh.
Hamilton and McLaren were given a reprimand and a $10,000 fine at the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix in similar circumstances.
Whitmarsh said Saturday's drama was due to a problem in the McLaren garage.
"It is a technical problem that happened in the garage that didn't impede the performance of the car in any way and we stopped when it had 1.3 litres of fuel in the car," he added.
He was adamant that Hamilton had enough fuel to complete his lap back to the pit lane and also to supply a one litre sample.
Hamilton had a best lap of 1min 21.707sec to finish half a second clear of Maldonado.
Fernando Alonso was next fastest ahead of Romain Grosjean and his Lotus team-mate Kimi Raikkonen.
They were followed by Sergio Perez of Sauber, Nico Rosberg of Mercedes and defending champion Sebastian Vettel in a Red Bull.
Maldonado's promotion to pole was a great present for team founder Sir Frank Williams, who was celebrating his 70th birthday in the team garage.
"We have worked so hard to understand these tyres and develop our car around them and this is a great step forward for the team. We have such a good spirit and the car feels fantastic," said Maldonado.
Maldonado's promotion has given Williams their first pole since Nico Hulkenberg secured his maiden and sole pole position so far at the 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix.
It is also the first ever for a Venezuelan driver.