Red Bull faced their toughest qualifying challenge of the year today in Suzuka yet Sebastian Vettel managed to keep his team's season-long streak of pole positions alive.
Jenson Button, who had been the fastest driver in all three practice sessions this weekend, missed out on pole by nine thousandths of a second.
Lewis Hamilton missed out on a second run in Q3 after failing to complete his out-lap before the checkered flag fell and had to settle for third place.
Felipe Massa out-qualified Fernando Alonso for just the third time this season but both Ferrari drivers start ahead of Mark Webber in sixth.
It was a glorious sunny day in Japan as the cars came out on to the track for qualifying, a stark contrast to the torrential rain that caused the session to be abandoned last season. The Japanese fans were out in force to see whether Jenson Button, who had been fastest in all three practice sessions, could be the first non-Red Bull pole-sitter of the season.
Those fans got something to cheer about in Q1 after Kamui Kobayashi topped the timesheets with a 1:32.626. The Sauber driver did use the soft Pirelli tyre on his flying lap though, not something required by the top teams. Adrian Sutil, who also used that faster soft tyre, was second fastest with Fernando Alonso third. The Spaniard was the highest place driver that utilised only the medium tyre during Q1.
Nico Rosberg was the surprise casualty during this early stage after an unspecified technical problem that prevented the German from completing a flying lap. He will start twenty-third, ahead of only Vitantonio Liuzzi, who also failed to set a lap.
Red Bull came out fighting in Q2 with Sebastian Vettel coming straight out on soft tyres and setting a fast lap. The McLaren challenge remained ever-present though, with Lewis Hamilton then going faster than the world champion.
Hamilton remained at the top of the timesheets as Q2 finished with Vettel second, Button third, and Webber fourth. Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and the one remaining Mercedes of Michael Schumacher got through to Q3 using just one set of tyres.
Kobayashi continued to delight the home fans by sneaking into Q3 in tenth place and Renault, recovering from an 'embarrassing' weekend in Singapore, got both drivers into the final part of qualifying. For Bruno Senna's mechanics this was a particularly good achievement – they worked tirelessly over their lunch break to repair accident damage sustained during FP3 earlier this morning.
Kobayashi was first out during Q3 on a set of the slower medium tyres, basking in the support of his compatriots who were waving flags in the grandstands. He did not complete a flying lap however, choosing to come into the pit lane rather than cross the line to record a lap.
Hamilton set the early pace in this pole position shoot-out with a time of 1:30.617. Button was second with a 1:30.736, and Vettel on his first at pole position, was only third!
Other than these top three, Mark Webber and Felipe Massa, nobody else was in any particular hurry to set a lap time. With three-quarters of the Q3 gone, there were still only five times on the board. Such is the tyre degradation around Suzuka this weekend; teams were reluctant to do any more than the bare minimum of laps.
With just over two minutes to go, the cars finally spilled out onto the track. Fernando Alonso was first out of the pit lane, and was followed by the rest of the pole challengers.
However, it transpired that Hamilton (and Schumacher) had left it too late to leave the pits, and did not get around to the start line before the time elapsed.
Vettel set lap of 1:30.466 to beat Hamilton's provisional pole time. Button also beat his team-mate's time to go second, and missed out on pole by less than one hundredth of a second. Fortunately for Hamilton, neither Massa, Alonso or Webber were able to better his first lap, but the Brit missed out on a great opportunity to grab pole position.