McLaren's Lewis Hamilton had topped the Q3 timesheets early on and was expected to improve his time still further, but he ended up being too late to the starting line to beat the chequered flag coming out to signal the end of the session.
Hamilton could do nothing but watch as first Sebastian Vettel and then Jenson Button went faster that his previously posted time, to lock-up the front row of the grid.
The critical moment came when Hamilton was overtaken on his warm-up lap by Mark Webber and Michael Schumacher.
"In Q3, my final attempt at a lap was compromised when I entered the final corner on my out-lap and, from out of nowhere, Mark shot up the inside of me," he explained. "Then Michael came past on my outside and went across the grass. Those incidents delayed me, so I couldn't reach the startline to begin my lap - it was an interesting situation but we were all up against it to get across the line."
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh pointed out that lack of clarity in team communications had also played a part. "It was a little tight on time as we left the garage for his final run - we knew we couldn't afford to let any other cars past - but he lost time on his out-lap and didn't quite make it to the finish line in time to start his final run.
"With the benefit of hindsight, we perhaps didn't make it clear enough to Lewis about what he needed to achieve on his out-lap," he added, indicating that Hamilton hadn't been aware of how critical the timing to the start line was going to be.
In any case, Hamilton was pleased with the third position on the grid for Sunday's Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka, which his earlier time proved to be still good enough to secure.
"I'm happy to be third - I'll be starting from the cleaner side of the grid, and we can have a good race from there," he said. "I might be starting third, but I know I'm as quick as the two guys in front of me.
"We've been extremely competitive all weekend," he continued. "We've definitely shown an improvement: to be so close at a high-speed circuit like this means we're doing well. It's very encouraging, because if we'd had this car at the beginning of the season, I think the championship could have been a different story."