Championship-elect Max Verstappen scored an important pole position at Suzuka by edging out Charles Leclerc but the Red Bull driver faces a stewards investigation over an incident with Lando Norris.
Despite failing to improve on his final run in Q3, Verstappen’s banker lap was quick enough to land the top spot in qualifying as Leclerc just dropped a hundredth in the final sector.
That comes as victory and a bonus point for fastest lap will earn Verstappen his second Formula 1 title.
In the climax to qualifying, Leclerc was the first of the pole contenders to begin his flying lap and duly improved on his personal best in the first sector before going quickest of anyone in S2.
But the Ferrari driver ran 0.01 seconds down through the closing part of the lap to miss out by 0.009 seconds, as Verstappen failed to improve in S1 and S3 after running wide and shedding some carbon.
Carlos Sainz, who had the legs on Leclerc earlier in the day, ran to third and was 0.06 seconds down as Sergio Perez will complete the second row, four tenths down on his teammate.
The Singapore Grand Prix winner had gone comfortably fastest in Q2 when Verstappen did not opt for a second lap but then complained of understeer to fall out of the fight for pole position.
Esteban Ocon ran to a strong fifth for Alpine as Lewis Hamilton led the subdued Mercedes attack in sixth over Fernando Alonso.
George Russell set the eighth-fastest time over Sebastian Vettel on his final Formula 1 appearance at Suzuka, while Lando Norris rounded out the top ten.
But there is a question mark hanging over the provisional polesitter.
Verstappen, who set the pace in Q1, led the opening segment in the final part of qualifying as he toured round in one minute, 29.304 seconds to find an imperious quarter of a second over Leclerc and Sainz.
But Norris notably had to take evasive action early into Q3 as he had to take to the grass as Verstappen seemed to attempt to warm the tyres out of 130R and the RB18 stepped wide.
The Red Bull driver did repass Norris and appeared to raise his hand by way of an apology.
The incident took place when both were on an out-lap. It will be investigated post-session.
Vettel ran out of sequence in the 15-minute Q2 to ensure clean air but he did leave himself at risk of being caught out by track position, but he initially climbed as high as fifth position.
While he was shuffled down to tenth to still make it into the shootout for pole as the improvements came, he kept ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, who was eliminated in P11.
The McLaren driver had looked strong on Saturday but missed the cut-off by a tiny 0.003 seconds after failing to improve on his crucial lap, as largely determined by an iffy final sector.
Valtteri Bottas dropped time in the opening sector that he could not recover so failed to improve and will start the race in P12 ahead of home favourite Yuki Tsunoda.
Zhou Guanyu took the second Alfa Romeo to P14, while Mick Schumacher was P15, the German having the measure of his teammate Kevin Magnussen despite missing all of FP2 on Friday as the team changed the chassis on his car after he crashed the Haas on an in-lap in a wet FP1.
Aston Martin driver Vettel had just about survived to fight on in Q2 after Alex Albon missed out on the top 15 by a slender 0.055 seconds in the climax to the first part of qualifying.
The Williams driver had already had a lap time deleted for pushing track limits through the famous Spoon Curve. He was then the last to run over the line in Q1 but despite a personal best first sector, he dropped time in the middle part of the lap to ensure he was eliminated.
Struggles and major complaints from both AlphaTauri drivers over the AT03’s braking throughout the session meant Pierre Gasly was knocked out at the first time of asking.
The newly confirmed 2023 Alpine driver locked up through the hairpin, to his immense frustration over team radio, to run only P17 ahead of Magnussen.
Lance Stroll failing to improve on his final go with a lock-up at the hairpin at a cost of four tenths landed him P19, while Nicholas Latifi brought up the rear – the Canadian already down to serve a five-place grid drop for his crash with Zhou in the Singapore Grand Prix.
If Max Verstappen gets a penalty for impending Lando Norris in Q3 at 130R, then the world championship will take an interesting turn at Suzuka despite the Red Bull driver scoring a pole position. If the grid penalty is applied, then Charles Leclerc will get promoted to P1. Down to the race stewards to decide the fate of the Formula 1 title.
Japanese Grand Prix, qualifying positions:
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:29.304
2 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1:29.314
3 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1:29.361
4 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1:29.709
5 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1:30.165
6 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:30.261
7 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1:30.322
8 George Russell Mercedes 1:30.389
9 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1:30.554
10 Lando Norris McLaren 1:31.003
11 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1:30.659
12 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo 1:30.709
13 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1:30.808
14 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo 1:30.953
15 Mick Schumacher Haas 1:31.439
16 Alex Albon Williams 1:31.311
17 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1:31.322
18 Kevin Magnussen Haas 1:31.352
19 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1:31.419
20 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1:31.511