Lewis Hamilton took a crucial pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix, with his title rival Felipe Massa down in fifth place.
In dry and sunny conditions very different to last year's qualifying downpour, Hamilton dug deep to beat a resurgent Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) to pole position, with Heikki Kovalainen and Fernando Alonso filling row two ahead of Massa.
Raikkonen had been fastest after the first Q3 runs, with Massa provisionally completing an all-Ferrari front row and Hamilton only third at that stage.
The reigning world champion then improved further on his flying lap, raising the benchmark to a 1:18.644.
But Hamilton responded in style and beat Raikkonen to pole by 0.2 seconds.
With the points leader's McLaren teammate Kovalainen and Singapore winner Alonso (Renault) leaping to the second row on their own last laps, Massa was pushed back to fifth place - potentially disastrous for his title aspirations.
Robert Kubica took sixth on the grid, but the Pole's teammate Nick Heidfeld had another extremely disappointing qualifying session, and will start from 16th - his worst grid position of the season. Neither BMW was especially competitive in Q1, with Kubica only 14th, but Heidfeld was a crucial 0.151 seconds slower and was eliminated.
Toyota filled row four at their home circuit, with Timo Glock only eighth behind his teammate Jarno Trulli despite going fastest of all in Q1.
The Toro Rossos completed the top ten, Sebastian Vettel beating teammate Sebastien Bourdais to ninth by half a second.
David Coulthard out-qualified his Red Bull Racing teammate Mark Webber for only the second time this season as they took 11th and 13th, 0.167 seconds apart and split by Nelson Piquet's Renault.
Sole home driver Kazuki Nakajima couldn't better 14th place in qualifying, but did have the consolation of out-pacing his Williams teammate Nico Rosberg, who was 0.078 seconds slower and one place behind.
The two Hondas and the two Force Indias fill the final two rows. Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button both looked like they had a chance to make the Q2 cut before others improved and pushed them down the order, and they then failed to improve on their last Q1 laps.
Adrian Sutil was unable to build on his strong practice form and was only 19th, but did out-qualify his Force India teammate Giancarlo Fisichella by a comfortable 0.8 seconds.
Pos Driver Team Q1 Q2 Q3
1. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes (B) 1:18.071 1:17.462 1:18.404
2. Raikkonen Ferrari (B) 1:18.160 1:17.733 1:18.644
3. Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes (B) 1:18.220 1:17.360 1:18.821
4. Alonso Renault (B) 1:18.290 1:17.871 1:18.852
5. Massa Ferrari (B) 1:18.110 1:17.287 1:18.874
6. Kubica BMW Sauber (B) 1:18.684 1:17.931 1:18.979
7. Trulli Toyota (B) 1:18.501 1:17.541 1:19.026
8. Glock Toyota (B) 1:17.945 1:17.670 1:19.118
9. Vettel Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) 1:18.559 1:17.714 1:19.638
10. Bourdais Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) 1:18.593 1:18.102 1:20.167
11. Coulthard Red Bull-Renault (B) 1:18.303 1:18.187
12. Piquet Renault (B) 1:18.300 1:18.274
13. Webber Red Bull-Renault (B) 1:18.372 1:18.354
14. Nakajima Williams-Toyota (B) 1:18.640 1:18.594
15. Rosberg Williams-Toyota (B) 1:18.740 1:18.672
16. Heidfeld BMW Sauber (B) 1:18.835
17. Barrichello Honda (B) 1:18.882
18. Button Honda (B) 1:19.100
19. Sutil Force India-Ferrari (B) 1:19.163
20. Fisichella Force India-Ferrari (B) 1:19.910