Lewis Hamilton claimed his and McLaren's second pole of the 2009 season at Monza - but he had to dig deep to beat Adrian Sutil as Force India produced another sensational performance.
World champion Hamilton's early Q3 time of 1m24.605s had looked unbeatable until Sutil delivered a stunning 1m24.261s on his final run - despite a notable error at the first Lesmo.
That lap put Sutil onto provisional pole, but Hamilton was already setting new benchmarks in the first two sectors and he duly completed a lap of 1m24.066s to retake first place.
Second is still Sutil's best ever Formula 1 qualifying position, although he has the ominous prospects of two KERS shod cars starting right behind him, as Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari and Heikki Kovalainen's McLaren claimed the second row spots.
The Brawns will share row three, with Rubens Barrichello beating his team-mate and title rival Jenson Button by 0.015s.
Tonio Liuzzi backed up Force India team-mate Sutil with an excellent seventh place - also a career best - on his return to F1 after an absence of nearly two years.
Despite their lack of practice running, the Red Bulls still proceeded through to Q3 with little drama, although Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber only managed ninth and 10th, behind Renault's Fernando Alonso.
While Force India flew, its former driver Giancarlo Fisichella could not better 14th in his first qualifying session as a Ferrari driver.
He will start between the BMWs of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld, who both parked with engine problems within minutes of each other during Q2.
Jarno Trulli only just made it through Q1 - the 0.022s separating him and Toyota team-mate Timo Glock leaving the German on the wrong side of the cut-off. But Trulli fared better in Q2 and came within 0.066s of making it into the top ten as he took 11th alongside Renault's Romain Grosjean, who ran wide at the Lesmos on his last run.
Williams' pessimism about its Monza chances proved justified as the team endured its worst qualifying performance of the season and filled row nine. For only the third time this year, Kazuki Nakajima outpaced Nico Rosberg.
There was also massive disappointment for Toro Rosso. A year on from its remarkable pole and win, the team will start from the back of the grid, with its lack of pace making 20th place qualifier Jaime Alguersuari's gearbox change penalty irrelevant.
Pos Driver Team Q1 Q2 Q3
1. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes (B) 1:23.375 1:22.973 1:24.066
2. Sutil Force India-Mercedes (B) 1:23.576 1:23.070 1:24.261
3. Raikkonen Ferrari (B) 1:23.349 1:23.426 1:24.523
4. Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes (B) 1:23.515 1:23.528 1:24.845
5. Barrichello Brawn-Mercedes (B) 1:23.483 1:22.976 1:25.015
6. Button Brawn-Mercedes (B) 1:23.403 1:22.955 1:25.030
7. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes (B) 1:23.578 1:23.207 1:25.043
8. Alonso Renault (B) 1:23.708 1:23.497 1:25.072
9. Vettel Red Bull-Renault (B) 1:23.558 1:23.545 1:25.180
10. Webber Red Bull-Renault (B) 1:23.755 1:23.273 1:25.314
11. Trulli Toyota (B) 1:24.014 1:23.611
12. Grosjean Renault (B) 1:23.975 1:23.728
13. Kubica BMW-Sauber (B) 1:24.001 1:23.866
14. Fisichella Ferrari (B) 1:23.828 1:23.901
15. Heidfeld BMW-Sauber (B) 1:23.584 1:24.275
16. Glock Toyota (B) 1:24.036
17. Nakajima Williams-Toyota (B) 1:24.074
18. Rosberg Williams-Toyota (B) 1:24.121
19. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) 1:24.220
20. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) 1:24.951
All Timing Unofficial