Australian Mark Webber led a Red Bull front row sweep on Saturday and denied team-mate and Formula One championship leader Sebastian Vettel a fifth successive Japanese Grand Prix pole position.
Vettel, who can clinch his fourth successive world title at the age of 26 on Sunday if he wins and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso finishes lower than eighth, had problems with his car’s kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) and had to settle for second.
The German, out-qualified by Webber for the first time this season, will still be favourite to win given the championship situation, and the likelihood of team orders.
Alonso, 77 points behind Vettel with five races remaining, qualified only eighth on a sunny afternoon at the Honda-owned figure-of-eight Suzuka circuit.
His time of one minute 30.915 seconds was 0.174 quicker than Vettel’s best effort.
Lewis Hamilton, for Mercedes, and Romain Grosjean in a Lotus, share the second row while Ferrari’s Brazilian Felipe Massa starts fifth at a circuit where he was runner-up last year.
Nico Rosberg qualified sixth for Mercedes with fellow-German Nico Hulkenberg seventh for Sauber.
Webber’s 12th career pole also ended a run of three poles in three races for Vettel, who has won at Suzuka three times in the last four years.
The starting grid:
1st row: Mark Webber (Red Bull); Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull).
2nd: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes); Romain Grosjean (Lotus).
3rd: Felipe Massa (Ferrari); Nico Rosberg (Mercedes).
4th: Nico Hulkenberg (Sauber); Fernando Alonso (Ferrari).
5th: Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus); Jenson Button (McLaren).
6th: Sergio Perez (McLaren); Paul di Resta (Force India).
7th: Valtteri Bottas (Williams); Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber).
8th: Pastor Maldonado (Williams); Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso).
9th: Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso); Max Chilton (Marussia).
10th: Giedo van der Garde (Caterham); Charles Pic (Caterham).
11th: Jules Bianchi (Marussia); Adrian Sutil (Force India).