Sebastian Vettel took his 12th pole position of the season at Suzuka, denying Jenson Button the top spot by just 0.009sec.
After McLaren and Button had topped all three practice sessions, and Lewis Hamilton led Q2 and the initial Q3 laps, it looked like Red Bull might finally be beaten to a pole for the first time in 2011. But Hamilton got out slightly too late to complete his final Q3 run – losing time when caught up with Mark Webber and Michael Schumacher at the chicane – and found his 1m30.617s beaten by Vettel's 1m30.466s.
That left it up to Button to try and interrupt Red Bull's pole run, but the Friday pacesetter fell agonizingly short. Vettel can claim the world championship tomorrow by just scoring a single point, or if Button fails to win.
Hamilton ended up third, while the Ferraris were fourth and fifth, with Felipe Massa ahead of Fernando Alonso by 0.062sec. Alonso had to abandon his first Q3 shot after going off the road at Spoon. Webber could only manage sixth in the other Red Bull, despite setting the fastest sector one time.
Schumacher was one of several drivers not to set a Q3 time as he saved tires. His teammate Nico Rosberg was not able to run at all on qualifying. A hydraulic issue kept his Mercedes in the garage and he will start 23rd.
Kamui Kobayashi delighted his home crowd by using soft tires to set the outright pace in Q1, then made it through to Q3, where he chose to save tires and did not set a flying lap.
Lotus Renault GP took the same strategy, having got over its Singapore dip and got both cars into Q3 again, with Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov starting eighth and ninth.
The Force Indias did not quite make Q3 and will share row six, ahead of the Williams.
Having shown some top 10 potential in practice, Toro Rosso looked like it might reach Q3 after the initial Q2 runs. But the team chose not to run again and the end of the session, so Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari found themselves pushed down to the eighth row.
Sergio Perez will start 17th, a hydraulic problem striking his Sauber before he could set a Q2 time.
At the back, Lotus kept a one-second cushion over Virgin, were Jerome D'Ambrosio outqualified Timo Glock. Tonio Liuzzi's gremlin-strewn weekend continued as his HRT developed further problems early in Q1 and stopped him setting a time.
Pos Driver Team Time Gap
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m30.466s
2. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m30.475s + 0.009
3. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m30.617s + 0.151
4. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m30.804s + 0.338
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m30.886s + 0.420
6. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m31.156s + 0.690
7. Michael Schumacher Mercedes No time
8. Bruno Senna Renault No time
9. Vitaly Petrov Renault No time
10. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari No time
Q2 cut-off time: 1m32.380s Gap **
11. Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1m32.463s
12. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m32.746s
13. Rubens Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1m33.079s
14. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Cosworth 1m33.224s
15. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m33.227s
16. Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m33.427s
17. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari No time
Q1 cut-off time: 1m35.111s Gap *
18. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus-Renault 1m35.454s + 2.828
19. Jarno Trulli Lotus-Renault 1m35.514s + 2.888
20. Jerome D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth 1m36.439s + 3.813
21. Timo Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1m36.507s + 3.881
22. Daniel Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth 1m37.846s + 5.220
23. Nico Rosberg Mercedes No time
24. Tonio Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth No time
107% time: 1m39.109s
* Gap to quickest in Q1
** Gap to quickest in Q2