Michael Schumacher left it late to begin his first qualifying effort ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix, but used all the experience that produced eight pole positions at Suzuka to squeeze into the second timed session.
The German, having had an early lap aborted, was the last driver to set a time, and only just crossed the line to start his rescue mission before the chequered flag came out, but produced a time good enough for 16th, despite being more than a tenth down on his target entering the final sector.
Schumacher's escape was bad news for Bruno Senna, who was hovering on the edge of the drop zone as the session ticked by. The Brazilian was fuming too, having been badly held up by Jean-Eric Vergne - who was trying to build a gap to cars ahead - at the final chicane. The Frenchman will probably earn a penalty for his troubles, but that will come as little comfort for Senna who, facing the possible loss of his seat for 2013, will start no better than 17th if the Toro Rosso is demoted.
Senna joins the usual suspects in dropping out of qualifying at the first hurdle, with Heikki Kovalainen comfortably ahead of Timo Glock, reversing their positions from Singapore. Glock trailed the HRT of Pedro de la Rosa for much of the session, only to leap-frog the Spaniard at the last gasp. de la Rosa will still start a season-high 21st, however, having finished ahead of both Charles Pic and Vitaly Petrov, as well as team-mate Narain Karthikeyan.
At the other end of the timesheets, Romain Grosjean set the pace for Lotus as teams expected to be on the fringes of the top ten opted to fit the softer Pirellis in a bid to ensure their position. Behind the Frenchman, Kamui Kobayashi gave the home fans something to cheers, with Sauber team-mate Sergio Perez, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso filling the top five. Sebastian Vettel was sixth fastest, with McLaren duo Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button dropping to 14th and 15th respectively in the late reshuffle.