Sebastian Vettel took pole position at Suzuka for the fourth straight year with a commanding performance in Japanese Grand Prix qualifying.
The world champion led the way in Q2, then set a 1m30.839s early in Q3.
Vettel was set to improve further before Kimi Raikkonen spun his Lotus into the Spoon gravel, causing a middle sector yellow flag when all the top 10 were trying to improve.
Mark Webber completed Red Bull's first front row sweep of 2012, 0.2 seconds down on his team-mate.
Home hero Kamui Kobayashi will start third. He was fourth fastest for Sauber, but will gain a place when third-placed Jenson Button is given his gearbox change penalty.
Both Button's McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton and world championship leader Fernando Alonso appeared to be stymied by the Raikkonen yellow. Alonso's Ferrari was only seventh, ahead of Raikkonen and Hamilton.
Ferrari was already struggling for pace in Japan, with Felipe Massa unable to do better than 11th.
Romain Grosjean was fifth for Lotus, with Sergio Perez underlining Sauber's pace in sixth.
Of the Force Indias, only Nico Hulkenberg made it to Q3 - a 0.055s gap between him and Paul di Resta in Q2 leaving the Scot 12th. But the German has also received a gearbox-change penalty and did not do a Q3 flying lap.
Mercedes had been centre of attention in the week but its on-track performance was an anti-climax after Michael Schumacher's retirement announcement.
The seven-time champion waited until the final seconds of Q1 to set a time and only just scraped through in 16th, before taking 13th in Q2, two places ahead of team-mate Nico Rosberg.
It was another miserable qualifying session for Bruno Senna. He got trapped behind Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso at the chicane on his last Q1 lap - prompting angry gesticulations and a slow time.
When Schumacher delivered his last-gap lap, Senna was pushed down to 18th, just behind Vergne.
Pastor Maldonado could not do much to raise Williams team spirits this time, only managing 14th.
The tail-end pack started with Heikki Kovalainen's Caterham and finished with Narain Karthikeyan's HRT as usual, but things were shaken up in between, with Timo Glock and Pedro de la Rosa ahead of Charles Pic and Vitaly Petrov.
Pos Driver Team Time Gap 1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m30.839s
2. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m31.090s + 0.251
3. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m31.294s + 0.451
4. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m31.700s + 0.861
5. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m31.989s + 1.059
6. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m32.022s + 1.183
7. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m32.114s + 1.275
8. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m32.208s + 1.369
9. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m32.327s + 1.488
10. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes no time
Q2 cut-off time: 1m32.272s Gap ** 11. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m32.293s + 0.792 12. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m32.327s + 0.826 13. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m32.469s + 0.968 14. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m32.512s + 1.011 15. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m32.625s + 1.124 16. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m32.954s + 1.453 17. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m33.368s + 1.867 Q1 cut-off time: 1m33.370s Gap * 18. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m33.405s + 1.376 19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m34.657s + 2.628 20. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m35.213s + 3.184 21. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m35.385s + 3.356 22. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m35.429s + 3.400 23. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m35.432s + 3.403 24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m36.734s + 4.705 107% time: 1m38.471s
* Gap to quickest in Q1
** Gap to quickest in Q2