Sebastian Vettel converted his domination of United States Grand Prix practice into the anticipated pole position at Austin, as his title rival Fernando Alonso struggled to ninth.
In a Q3 battle that saw everyone hammer round on long runs trying to bring their tyres to life, Vettel put in a 1m35.877s with two minutes to spare.
He nearly got a surprise from Lewis Hamilton, who closed to within 0.051 seconds of the Red Bull, which was now cruising.
Vettel started another flying lap and dug deeper still, crossing the line at 1m35.657s.
Hamilton was still setting very competitive sector times on his last attempt, but ultimately ended up a tenth short.
The McLaren driver still prevented an all-Red Bull front row, forcing Mark Webber back to third.
Lotus showed very strong form in fourth and fifth with Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen, although the former will drop back five places due to a gearbox change penalty.
That will elevate Michael Schumacher into the top five. Just as his Formula 1 career appeared to be limping to a depressing second end, the seven-time champion showed great form throughout Austin qualifying to go sixth quickest, although he may yet face censure for blocking Alonso in Q2.
Alonso struggled mightily to make his Ferrari's tyres work in Q3, weaving frantically between flying laps.
His team-mate Felipe Massa managed better and took seventh, with Alonso back in ninth between the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg and the Williams of Pastor Maldonado.
Hamilton was the only McLaren in the top 10 shoot-out. An apparent throttle problem left Jenson Button crawling back to the pits in Q2, and he was pushed down to 12th.
Jean-Eric Vergne's 14th place marked his best qualifying result since the Spanish GP in May. The Frenchman has been eliminated in Q1 eight times this year - but at Austin it was his Toro Rosso team-mate Daniel Ricciardo who fell early.
Q3 remained elusive for Bruno Senna and Paul di Resta, who were 11th and 13th as their respective team-mates Maldonado and Hulkenberg made it to the final segment.
Sauber had been among the teams most concerned about tyre warm-up issues on Friday, and the problems did not relent in qualifying. Sergio Perez - in front of a large Mexican spectator contingent - and Kamui Kobayashi were a long way off the pace in 15th and 16th.
Nico Rosberg was a full 1.4s slower than Mercedes team-mate Schumacher in Q2, and that resulted in 17th position.
Marussia ended Q1 in jubilant mood after beating Caterham in emphatic fashion. Both Timo Glock and Charles Pic outpaced the green cars, with Caterham's lead runner Vitaly Petrov 0.8s off Glock's time.
Despite its troubled start to the weekend, and Narain Karthikeyan parking at Turn 2 with a mechanical problem, HRT got both cars within the 107 per cent qualifying margin with several tenths to spare.
Pos Driver Team Time Gap 1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m35.657s
2. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m35.766s + 0.109
3. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m36.174s + 0.517
4. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m36.587s + 0.930
5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m36.708s + 1.051
6. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m36.794s + 1.137
7. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m36.937s + 1.280
8. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m37.141s + 1.484
9. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m37.300s + 1.643
10. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m37.842s + 2.185
Q2 cut-off time: 1m37.404s Gap ** 11. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m37.604s + 1.808 12. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m37.616s + 1.820 13. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m37.665s + 1.869 14. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m37.879s + 2.083 15. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m38.206s + 2.410 16. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m38.437s + 2.641 17. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m38.501s + 2.705 Q1 cut-off time: 1m38.862s Gap * 18. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m39.114s + 2.556 19. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m40.056s + 3.498 20. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m40.664s + 4.106 21. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m40.809s + 4.251 22. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m41.166s + 4.608 23. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m42.011s + 5.453 24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m42.740s + 6.182 107% time: 1m43.317s
* Gap to quickest in Q1
** Gap to quickest in Q2