Mark Webber rebounded from his fiery exit in last week's race to claim his first pole position of the season - his first since Korea in 2012 - after his team mate Sebastian Vettel continued to be handicapped by ongoing KERS issues.
However a concern hung over the Australian's success, after an incident in Q2 hinted that he might be under investigation for impeding a rival competitor, which may see him penalised by the stewards and could lead to him being stripped of the pole position later in the day.
Earlier, Sauber's Esteban Gutierrez had been the first man out on track for qualifying at Suzuka, but with conditions dry, bright and sunny and track temperatures an optimal 36C is seemed there was little rush to get out on the track, even among those with running repairs to road test such as Adrian Sutil in his rebuilt Force India following an FP3 crash at the exit of Spoon, and Sebastian Vettel who had needed his KERS unit replaced after missing an option tyre run in the final 20 minute of the final practice session.
Gutierrez' initial marker was 1:33.457s on the prime hard compound tyres, after which battle was joined by his team mate Nico Hulkenberg as well as cars from Williams, McLaren, Force India, Toro Rosso and Caterham while the expected top runners from Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes initially held off.
Fernando Alonso was in action just before the midway point of the session with a first offering of 1:32.371s with Lewis Hamilton slipping into second ahead of Jenson Button, although the Ferrari's maiden run of the session was somewhat overshadowed by events back in the pit lane were a brief but alarming fire had broken out at the back of Gutierrez' car when it had been wheeled back into the Sauber garage after the young Mexican's run. It proved to be just a surface fire on the bodywork, spectacular but relatively harmless and one that had not done any lasting damage once Gutierrez had demonstrated his mandatory ability to extract himself from the cockpit in five seconds.
Mark Webber's first run in his new RB9 - a new chassis having been built for him following his fiery exit from the Korean Grand Prix last Sunday - saw him go top with a time of 1:32.271s, but 'fire' was clearly the word of the day as the sister car of Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso suddenly pulled over coming out of the hairpin billowing smoke from a nasty brake fire at the rear of the car. With Vergne jumping out and marshalls scrambling to deal with the blaze before it became the serious conflagration seen last weekend, a cloud of extinguisher swept across the track forcing race control to throw an immediate red flag to temporarily halt the session.
That left just under three minutes of the 20-minute session remaining when the track reopened for business. The top five stayed in the pits but the rest of the field went out for a final scramble, Gutierrez quick to jump out of the drop zone and improvements from Adrian Sutil and Daniel Ricciardo briefly putting Felipe Massa in danger of going out, but Massa's final run popped him up into second behind Lotus' Romain Grosjean, leaving Sutil right back where he'd started the final shootout and joining the still-smoking Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne along with the Caterhams of Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde and the Marussias of Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi on the sidelines for the remainder of qualifying. Worse, Sutil will have a five-place grid penalty for tomorrow's race after a pre-qualifying gearbox change was forced upon him by his FP3 accident.
Having made Q2 unlike his team mate Sutil, Paul di Resta set the first benchmark in the second phase of qualifying with a time of 1:33.059s on the options which was soon cut by a second by Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen running on hard tyres. It wasn't long before Alonso and Hamilton were back in action and at the top of the timesheets, and then there was a certain inevitability as Sebastian Vettel finally showed his hand with a lap of 1:31.290s to put him safely into the front ahead of his Red Bull team mate Mark Webber who himself had a half second in hand over the Ferrari. Job done, the Red Bulls returned to pit lane after their solitary final effort, secure in the knowledge they were through to the pole shootout.
Those at risk with a minute to go were the two Williams and both Saubers, along with McLaren's Sergio Perez and also Daniel Ricciardo, late to set a single representative laptime after the team had prioritised extensive checks on the back of the Toro Rosso to ensure that he did not share the Q1 fate of his team mate Vergne. A flurry of late flying laps once again saw Felipe Massa flirt with disaster before finally springing to safety in the final timed lap of the session, leaving Hulkenberg the only driver to improve his lot in the final seconds as he finished in tenth place, di Resta the man to get the chop in his place. Most unhappy with the outcome was Perez who ended up missing the cut by a tenth of a second and who felt understandably aggrieved after being impeded at the start of one lap by the Red Bull of Mark Webber wandering out of the pit lane into his path, an incident that will doubtless be reviewed by the race stewards after qualifying despite Perez' own opinion that Webber hadn't held him up.