Nico Rosberg pipped Mercedes team-mate and title rival Lewis Hamilton by a small margin to take pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix.
Hamilton had been slightly faster on the first runs after struggling in practice, but Rosberg edged him by 0.013 seconds on the very last laps.
The world champion needs to beat Rosberg in Sunday’s race to close his 23-point championship deficit.
Hamilton has beaten Rosberg in Japan after starting second in 2014 and 2015.
The Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were third and fourth, ahead of the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.
Sunday’s race in live on the BBC Sport website and on radio 5 live.
Hamilton really has to beat Rosberg in Japan
Rosberg’s advantage equates to 83cm over a 3.6-mile lap of Suzuka. The German has appeared the more comfortable throughout practice, beating Hamilton in all three sessions, and in the first two qualifying sessions as well as the crucial final one.
“It was going well all weekend,” Rosberg said. “Had a good balance, feeling comfortable and that’s what allows me to put in a lap like that.”
Hamilton said: “I’m happy with qualifying. It has been a weekend of a lot of work trying to get the set-up right. Big changes before qualifying and considering that I am very happy with it. I did as well as I could.
“History has shown you don’t have to be on pole to get the win but Nico has done a great job all weekend.”
Given the championship situation, with only 125 points still available from the remaining five races including this one, beating Rosberg on Sunday is imperative for Hamilton.
If it stays dry, it could all come down to the start, as overtaking is so difficult at Suzuka and strategy favours the lead car, which has pit stop priority with stopping first and advantage.
But overnight rain is expected and although the weather is expected to be dry by the start of the race at this stage, a wet track would mix things up and bring the Red Bulls in particular into play.
Ferrari not done yet
For now, Ferrari received a welcome fillip after a disappointing few races by locking out the second row, although the positions of the two drivers will do little to reduce the pressure on Vettel.
He has been heavily criticised by the Italian media following his first-corner crash in Malaysia last weekend, and here in Japan team boss Maurizio Arrivabene has given an interview in which he said the four-time world champion will have to “earn” a new contract beyond 2017.
Vettel will start seventh because of the three-place penalty he was given for causing the crash at Sepang.
“It’s pretty much the same car as we had last week,” said Raikkonen. “I was very positively surprised by how well the car has been behaving and how quick it has been.”
At Red Bull, Ricciardo, 0.062secs behind Verstappen, said his engine was down on power in qualifying.
At just over 0.3secs, the gap between Mercedes and their closest rivals was smaller than might have been expected any this track.
The suspicion is that this is down to the world champions running their engines more conservatively following Hamilton’s failure while leading in Malaysia last weekend.
Not so good for Honda at home
McLaren had hoped to continue their recent improved form at the home race of engine supplier Honda, but the team have been uncompetitive so far this weekend.
Jenson Button suffered the major blow of being knocked out in the first session and qualified 17th, while Fernando Alonso could manage only 15th.
In the first session, Button was 0.032 seconds slower than Alonso, who then improved his time to end up nearly 0.2secs quicker.
“What was the gap to Fernando?” Button asked on the radio after being told of his position. “Thirty milliseconds,” replied engineer Tom Stallard. “Ouch,” Button said.
“Really tight,” he said afterwards. “All weekend it has been a struggle for me. On Friday the set-up was not working for me, and then this morning we had an issue with the power-unit.
“They promised me they would fix it and they did, but I ended up three hundredths behind my team-mate.”
He added that the high-speed nature of Suzuka did not suit the McLaren car, which is stronger in braking and slower corners.
Jolyon Palmer put in a strong performance to qualify 16th, feeling he could have made been 12th or 13th had he not had to back off for a yellow flag in Spoon Curve.
He made it through Q1, 0.227secs quicker than team-mate Kevin Magnussen, who was 18th fastest.
Meanwhile, the surprise of qualifying was probably the Haas team, whose drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez were eighth and 10th, each behind a Force India, with Sergio Perez out-qualifying team-mate Nico Hulkenberg.
Japanese Grand Prix qualifying results
Japanese Grand Prix coverage details
Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/formula1/37594830