Vettel on pole at Suzuka
Sebastian Vettel boosted his World Championship hopes as he claimed his fourth consecutive Japanese Grand Prix pole position at Suzuka.
The Red Bull driver produced a superb lap of one minute 30.839 seconds to secure the 34th pole of his career, moving him third on the all-time list - behind only Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna.
Mark Webber made it an all-Red Bull front row while home hero Kamui Kobayashi will start third for Sauber as McLaren's Jenson Button, who set the third fastest time, serves a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change.
But World Championship leader Fernando Alonso, who holds a 29-point advantage over Vettel, will only start sixth as Ferrari's recent struggles continued.
It was a bitterly disappointing day for Lewis Hamilton, on a weekend dominated by his move to Mercedes for 2013. He will start behind Button even with his team-mate's penalty.
Hamilton radioed his team in Q1 to tell them he felt he was in for a "struggle" and it proved to be the case as he could only manage the ninth fastest time, putting a dent in his own hopes of closing his 52-point deficit to Alonso.
As a result of Button's grid drop, Romain Grosjean will line up fourth in the leading Renault with new McLaren signing Sergio Perez underlining Sauber's pace this weekend as the Mexican secured fifth on the grid.
Alonso will start sixth as he benefits from Button's penalty, but the Spaniard will be concerned as Ferrari find themselves off the pace of Red Bull and McLaren for the fifth race in a row.
Kimi Raikkonen, who had a spin at the Spoon Curve late in Q3, will line up seventh ahead of the two McLarens.
Force India's Nico Hulkenberg was 10th fastest but he also serves a five-place grid penalty after his gearbox was changed following an off in final practice this morning.
Felipe Massa could not repeat his impressive performance in morning practice as he failed to get into Q3 with Paul Di Resta and Michael Schumacher next up, although the seven-time champion is another driver serving a penalty. The German's 10-place drop will see him start on the back row of the grid.
Schumacher, who announced his retirement at the end of the season on Thursday, had only just scraped into Q2 with a last-gasp lap after opting not to try a set of soft tyres.
Pastor Maldonado headed Nico Rosberg as Mercedes had a miserable qualifying followed by the Toro Rosso pair of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne.
Vergne may yet face sanction from the stewards after Bruno Senna complained bitterly that the Frenchman had blocked him on his flying lap in Q1, meaning it was the Brazilian who was eliminated and not the Toro Rosso man.
As expected the Caterhams, Marussias and HRTs were the six slowest cars during the session.
Vettel was delighted with his pole position, and described his qualifying as "perfect".
He said: "I am very happy with the result. We had a very smooth qualifying - really perfect. We could not ask for more.
"The car felt fantastic from the start of the session. We did not have the best start to the weekend but we have seemed to get better every time we have gone out. I am very pleased with the result.
"The car feels fantastic around here and obviously we hope for a very good race tomorrow."
But the German's joy could be shortlived after the stewards chose to look at whether he had impeded Alonso during the closing moments of Q3.
Team-mate Webber was pleased Red Bull had made the decision to go out early in Q3, giving them a clear track that those running later could not enjoy.
"It has been a good weekend for us so far," the Australian said. "Seb and I had a clean run in Q3 when it mattered with two pretty big laps from both of us.
"Seb got me a bit there and it was a good lap from him, but to be further up for us is good."
Button, meanwhile, acknowledged the Red Bulls have got the edge on speed this weekend, and admitted his penalty was hard to take.
"That hurts a little bit," he said. "But both laps in Q3 were good. I really enjoyed driving round here. It is always great with low fuel and new soft tyres.
"It was fun but not quick enough. I don't know if I could put my finger on where that four tenths is.
"It will be difficult to fight for the win, but never say never. There are always possibilities and I think we will have a good race."