Sebastian Vettel took pole position at Suzuka for the fourth straight year with a commanding performance in Japanese Grand Prix qualifying. The World Champion led the way in Q2, then set a 1m30.839s early in Q3.
Vettel was set to improve further before Kimi Raikkonen spun his Lotus into the Spoon gravel, causing a middle sector yellow flag when all the top 10 were trying to improve. Mark Webber completed Red Bull's first front row sweep of 2012, 0.2 second down on his teammate.
Home hero Kamui Kobayashi will start third. He was fourth fastest for Sauber, but will gain a place when third-placed Jenson Button is given his gearbox change penalty.
Both Button's McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton and championship leader Fernando Alonso appeared to be stymied by the Raikkonen yellow. Alonso's Ferrari was only seventh, ahead of Raikkonen and Hamilton. Ferrari was already struggling for pace in Japan, with Felipe Massa unable to do better than 11th.
Romain Grosjean was fifth for Lotus, with Sergio Perez underlining Sauber's pace in sixth.
Nico Hulkenberg edged out Force India teammate Paul di Resta by less than a tenth to make it into Q3, where he took 10th. But the German has also received a gearbox-change penalty.
Mercedes had been center of attention in the week but its on-track performance was an anti-climax after Michael Schumacher's retirement announcement. The seven-time champion waited until the final seconds of Q1 to set a time and only just scraped through in 16th, before taking 13th in Q2, two places ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg.
It was another miserable qualifying session for Bruno Senna. He got trapped behind Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso at the chicane on his last Q1 lap - prompting angry gesticulations and a slow time. When Schumacher delivered his last-gap lap, Senna was pushed down to 18th, just behind Vergne.
Pastor Maldonado could not do much to raise Williams team spirits this time, only managing 14th.
The tail-end pack started with Heikki Kovalainen's Caterham and finished with Narain Karthikeyan's HRT as usual, but things were shaken up in between, with Timo Glock and Pedro de la Rosa ahead of Charles Pic and Vitaly Petrov.
Pos Driver Team Time Gap
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m30.839s
2. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m31.090s + 0.251
3. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m31.294s + 0.451
4. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m31.700s + 0.861
5. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m31.989s + 1.059
6. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m32.022s + 1.183
7. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m32.114s + 1.275
8. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m32.208s + 1.369
9. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m32.327s + 1.488
10. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes no time
Q2 cut-off time: 1m32.272s Gap **
11. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m32.293s + 0.792
12. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m32.327s + 0.826
13. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m32.469s + 0.968
14. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m32.512s + 1.011
15. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m32.625s + 1.124
16. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m32.954s + 1.453
17. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m33.368s + 1.867
Q1 cut-off time: 1m33.370s Gap *
18. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m33.405s + 1.376
19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m34.657s + 2.628
20. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m35.213s + 3.184
21. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m35.385s + 3.356
22. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m35.429s + 3.400
23. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m35.432s + 3.403
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m36.734s + 4.705
107% time: 1m38.471s
* Gap to quickest in Q1
** Gap to quickest in Q2