Sebastian Vettel boosted his World Championship hopes as he claimed his fourth consecutive Japanese Grand Prix pole position while Fernando Alonso struggled 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 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.