Nico Rosberg won a thrilling duel against his Mercedes team-mate and championship rival Lewis Hamilton to claim pole position at Suzuka.
This was Rosberg’s third successive Japanese Grand Prix pole and the margin was a tiny 0.013 seconds.
The current title leader was fastest in every practice session, and topped the field again in qualifying, but only after a late rally against a Hamilton charge.
Hamilton was playing catch up compared to his team-mate in Q1 and Q2, but went ahead after the first runs in Q3.
Rosberg leapt back to the top of the times with a one minute, 30.647 seconds on his final lap, as Hamilton fell just 0.013 seconds short of taking P1 despite an improvement of his own at the end.
Kimi Raikkonen produced a strong lap to qualify third quickest for Ferrari, the only other driver to make it below the one minute, 31 seconds target.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was less than a tenth slower in fourth, but he faces a three-place drop on the grid thanks to his penalty for hitting Nico Rosberg at the first corner at last Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen beat his Red Bull Racing team-mate Daniel Ricciardo to the fifth fastest time, also by less than a tenth of a second.
Haas got both cars through to Q3 for the first time, and was best of the rest behind the top six cars in Q2.
Romain Grosjean set an identical time to Force India’s Sergio Perez in Q3, but ended up eighth quickest, just ahead of the second Force India of Nico Hulkenberg.
Grosjean’s Haas team-mate Esteban Gutierrez was seventh fastest in Q2, but ended up cut adrift at the bottom of the top ten in Q3, over half a second slower than Grosjean.
The Williams pairing of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa made only one run each in Q2, and were just edged out of the top ten by the Force Indias.
Bottas missed the cut by less than a tenth, while Massa was only 0.165 seconds further back and will start P12.
Daniil Kvyat felt he did the best he could to put his Toro Rosso with P13, fractionally faster than team-mate Carlos Sainz, who spun at Spoon Curve on his second run in Q2.
Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda was only 0.004 seconds slower than Sainz in P15, 0.118 seconds ahead of the leading Renault of Jolyon Palmer.
Jenson Button failed to escape Q1 at Honda’s home circuit, ending up just 0.032 seconds shy of beating McLaren team-mate Alonso to the draw.
Renault’s Kevin Magnussen was P18, ahead of the Sauber pairing of Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr and the Manors.
Ericsson was slowest of all after the first runs in Q1, but ended up just over a tenth ahead of his team-mate after Nasr failed to go faster on his second run.
Esteban Ocon out-qualified Manor team-mate Pascal Wehrlein for the second race in a row. On this occasion, by more than two tenths of a second, feeling he couldn’t have got much more out of his car.
The fact Wehrlein qualified last renders his five-place grid penalty for an illegal gearbox change potentially irrelevant.
So a very close and competitive qualifying session. Just 0.013 seconds the difference between the Mercedes drivers.
Great to see Haas making the top ten for the first time and yet all focus is on Mercedes. Can the team wrap up the constructors’ title in Japan? Signs point to yes thanks to Rosberg and Hamilton’s pace.
Japanese Grand Prix, qualifying standings:
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m30.647s
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m30.660s
3 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m30.949s
4 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Renault 1m31.178s
5 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull-Renault 1m31.240s
6 Sergio Perez Force India-Mercedes 1m31.961s
7 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m31.028s*
8 Romain Grosjean Haas-Ferrari 1m31.961s
9 Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m32.142s
10 Esteban Gutierrez Haas-Ferrari 1m32.547s
11 Valtteri Bottas Williams-Mercedes 1m32.315s
12 Felipe Massa Williams-Mercedes 1m32.380s
13 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m32.623s
14 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m32.685s
15 Fernando Alonso McLaren-Honda 1m32.689s
16 Jolyon Palmer Renault 1m32.807s
17 Jenson Button McLaren-Honda 1m32.851s
18 Kevin Magnussen Renault 1m33.023s
19 Marcus Ericsson Sauber-Ferrari 1m33.222s
20 Felipe Nasr Sauber-Ferrari 1m33.332s
21 Esteban Ocon Manor-Mercedes 1m33.353s
22 Pascal Wehrlein Manor-Mercedes 1m33.561s
*Grid penalty for colliding into Roberg at Sepang