Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel saw off McLaren's Jenson Button to take pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix.
Vettel will wrap up a second world title this weekend if he scores a single point or Button fails to win.
Lewis Hamilton was initially fastest but ran out of time for a second lap after Michael Schumacher's Mercedes and Mark Webber's Red Bull overtook him.
The McLaren man lines up third next to Ferrari's Felipe Massa, with whom he clashed at the last race in Singapore.
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso was fifth, ahead of Webber, Schumacher was initially classified seventh but has been demoted to eighth behind Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi.
Neither the German nor the Japanese set a fast time, but Kobayashi did start a qualifying lap, only to later abort it, whereas Schumacher did not even begin one.
Japanese GP qualifying - top three
The Renaults of Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov, who also did not set a time, were classified ninth and 10th.
McLaren took the fight to Red Bull in qualifying but yet another failing seems to have cost them a genuine chance of pole.
Button, who had led all three practice sessions in Japan, was beaten by an agonisingly narrow 0.009 seconds.
Hamilton did not have a chance to see if he could have run Red Bull even closer when he failed to cross the start-finish line in time to start his final fast lap after losing track position to Schumacher and Webber.
Hamilton said: "Jenson was in front of me. He slowed down to get his gap and I was coming up to the last corner, trying to make sure that I had a gap between me and him.
"It wasn't that big and just as I was coming into the chicane I looked in my mirror and I saw Mark diving up the inside of me, and then I saw… I didn't even see Michael but as I gave Mark room, Michael nearly crashed me on the left, so it was… quite dangerous."
Schumacher, who also failed to set a final lap, felt a sluggish final spell of qualifying could have cost him position on the grid.
"It was a bit stupid in the last chicane; everyone was driving a bit slow and I knew I had to go through somehow," he said.
Schumacher questions Hamilton go-slow
"I had Webber in front who slowed down because Hamilton slowed down and it was tight for all three of us. I tried my best and Lewis pushed me a little bit onto the grass."
BBC F1 co-commentator David Coulthard said Hamilton should have been more conscious of what was going on around him, but suggested his team should take a portion of the blame.
"It seems to me that whilst Lewis was getting ready to prepare his lap, he wasn't aware of the fact there were cars behind him, they were tight for time and they had to get on with it," he said. "In the end it has compromised his opportunity to go for pole.
"Lewis was trying to leave a gap so he had a clear lap. He didn't have a lot of space to play with but it's a communication issue. His engineers have got to know that Webber is behind him, Schumacher is behind him and the clock is ticking down."
Vettel took the unusual decision to go out early for the final runs and the decision paid off for the German, who took arguably his most comfortable pole position of the season.
BBC F1 commentator Martin Brundle said: "They gave it to him. They made it too easy for him but he was there to pick it up."
In his last two appearances at Suzuka, Vettel has taken pole-to-flag victories and he will be favourite for the victory again, even though tyre wear could yet play a crucial part.
BBC F1 commentator Martin Brundle on Sebastian Vettel
“They gave it to him. They made it too easy for him but he was there to pick it up”
Suzuka's fast and narrow circuit, which has been bathed in spectacular autumn sunshine all weekend, has been demanding on the Pirelli tyres and the teams made a determined effort to save some of their limited sets for Sunday's 53-lap race.
BBC pit-lane reporter Ted Kravitz commented: "They are genuinely in trouble with these tyres tomorrow."
The tyre-saving tactic seemed to backfire for Toro Rosso's Sebastian Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari, who qualified 15th and 16th in a subdued second phase of qualifying.
Sauber's Sergio Perez, who is battling flu this weekend, was not able to get out at all because of an issue with his hydraulics.
Nico Rosberg was left stranded in the Mercedes garage because of a hydraulics failure and will start on the back row of the grid alongside HRT's Vitantonio Liuzzi.
"I haven't given up and I can score some points from there," said a fairly philosophical Rosberg.
The German has made some electrifying starts this season, even moving up to take the lead at the Belgian Grand Prix, and must call on something special again in Japan.
"It's understandably frustrating for him because he's in a big titanic battle with his own team-mate, Michael Schumacher, and this is a real disappointment for the team," commented BBC F1 analyst Eddie Jordan.