There were echoes of the 2011 season in qualifying for the 2012 F1 Grand Prix of Japan, with Red Bull looking dominant in a way that we haven't seen for quite some time. Sebastian Vettel was well out in front of his team mate Mark Webber, who starts alongside him on the front row for the first time since Silverstone giving the pair the first Red Bull lockout of 2012.
There were moments of drama at the end of Q1 when Michael Schumacher was forced into a late scramble to make it through to the next session and Bruno Senna was baulked on his own final flying lap by Jean-Eric Vergne; and anxious moments at the end of Q2 when a late flurry of flying laps from other teams threatened to upset some of the Red Bull and McLaren campaign.
Unfortunately, yellow flags for a late spin by Kimi Raikkonen in the final seconds of Q3 rather punctured the growing excitement as it left several drivers unable to post a final qualifying effort to really challenge for grid positions. That worked in favour of the Red Bulls who had gone clearly fastest with their initial efforts at the very start, and they duly clinched the front row for tomorrow's Grand Prix without any last-minute dramas.
It had been a relatively quiet start to qualifying, with Paul di Resta setting the first flying lap of the session with a time of 1:33.661s, and gradually the times started to be posted one after the other as the picture for Q1 built up.
Late to set any times was Pastor Maldonado, who encountered technical problems on his early out lap that forced him to return to the pits, leaving him only six minutes toward the end of the session to go out and post a time good enough to get through to the second round. He immediately went safe in second place by resorting to the soft compound tyres right away.
With Paul di Resta also leaping up the timesheets with his own late lap on the options, a shiver of fear went through the entire field as everyone feared being bumped from the top-17 positions by late fliers from the backmarkers. In the end the gold rush didn't materialise, and the usual suspects from Caterham, Marussia and HRT were duly dumped from the day's proceedings - with Pedro de la Rosa managing to put himself ahead of Charles Pic, Vitaly Petrov and Narain Karthikeyan on the grid.
The focus was now on the identity of the seventh driver would be joining them on the sidelines, and for a long time it appeared that it might be Michael Schumacher after Mercedes opted to hold him back for a very late run. When his first flying lap saw him run wide out of Degner 2, the multiple former world champion barely scraped over the line in time to start a second flier before the chequered flag came out. He pulled it off, although 16th place was too close for comfort especially given he has his ten-place grid penalty from Singapore to cope with on Sunday: it wouldn't stop him repeating the late-lap gambit in Q2 however.
That briefly left Toro Rosso's Daniel Riccicardo looking exposed in the drop zone, but he improved to safety which landed Williams' Bruno Senna in danger. Senna's attempt to bag a decent time in the final minutes was affected by Riccicardo's team mate Jean-Eric Vergne in an incident inevitably heading to the attention of the race stewards, but whatever the outcome it would be too late for Senna whose lap was ruined and his hopes of getting through were dashed.
The remaining 17 drivers got down to work again five minutes later, and just as he had in Q1 Sebastian Vettel went straight to the top of the timesheets, this time with a lap of 1:31.501s putting him ahead of Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton as qualifying seemed to be coming down to a Red Bull/McLaren showdown.