Suzuka: Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel snatched pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix in a thrilling qualifying session Saturday as he closed on a historic second consecutive world title.
The German, winner of the last two races at Suzuka, scorched round the challenging lay-out to take his 12th pole of the season with a time of 1min 30.466secs, edging Briton Jenson Button of McLaren by just 0.009sec.
The 24-year-old Vettel, who crashed on Friday and trailed Button in all three practice sessions, needs to finish just 10th or better in Japan to become the youngest Formula One driver to win back-to-back world titles.
Vettel can also clinch the championship if Button doesn’t win Sunday’s race. The pole was the 27th of his career, and maintained Red Bull’s perfect 2011 record with a 15th pole in as many races this season.
Vettel was ecstatic to bounce back after a difficult start to the weekend, where he crashed in the final minute of the opening practice session on Friday.
"Yesterday I went off in practice and damaged the car, and I didn’t have the afternoon to prepare the car for today," Vettel said.
"We sat down after the practice session this morning and tried to put everything together, and we were able to get every single thing out of the car, which is crucial.
"It was a hard qualifying but I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a long lap, and I had a bit of a wobble in sector one. But then I made up for it in the second sector. All in all, it’s fantastic."
Button was disappointed to miss pole by such a tiny margin after topping the timesheets in all three practice sessions ahead of the top-10 shoot-out for first place on the grid.
"It’s been a pretty good weekend, and when the car is working around here, it’s a great feeling," he said. "I was basically building up to Q3. It was only nine-thousandths (of a second from pole), but it wasn’t good enough.
"Red Bull has dominated around here for the last couple of years, but we can have a good race tomorrow."
Button's team-mate Lewis Hamilton was third after failing to complete a second final flying lap in the dying stages of qualifying, while Brazilian Felipe Massa was fourth ahead of fellow Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso.
Australian Mark Webber was sixth for Red Bull, 0.69sec slower than team-mate Vettel. Mercedes' Michael Schumacher was seventh ahead of Renault duo Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov, with Japan's Kamui Kobayashi 10th in his Sauber.
Hamilton led the times after the drivers completed their first laps of the third and final part of qualifying, but didn’t start a second lap before the chequered flag was waved.
Hamilton was overtaken by Australian Mark Webber of Red Bull and German Michael Schumacher of Mercedes in the final part of the circuit, with Webber the only driver to begin a second qualifying lap before the session ended.
Before the top-10 shoot-out, both entries from Force India, Williams and Toro Rosso were eliminated in the second 15-minute period of qualifying, which Hamilton topped by three-tenths of a second from Vettel and Button.
German Adrian Sutil was 11th for Force India, with Scottish team-mate Paul di Resta 12th, while veteran Brazilian Rubens Barrichello was 13th, two-tenths of a second ahead of Venezuelan teammate Pastor Maldonado in 14th.
Swiss Sebastien Buemi qualified 15th, one place ahead of Spanish Toro Rosso team-mate Jaime Alguersuari, while Mexican Sergio Perez will start Sunday’s race from 17th place after failing to set a time in the second session.
German Nico Rosberg of Mercedes was a shock elimination in the first 20-minute period of qualifying after failing to record a timed lap because of a hydraulics failure.
It was the first time in 15 races this season that the German failed to reach the top 10.
Rosberg, who sits in seventh place in the championship, will start Sunday’s race from 23rd position, one place ahead of Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi from HRT, who also failed to record a timed lap after an engine misfire.
Finn Heikki Kovalainen of Lotus qualified 18th, six hundredths of a second quicker than Italian team-mate Jarno Trulli in 19th, while Belgian Jerome D’Ambrosio and German Timo Glock were 20th and 21st for Virgin Racing.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo was 22nd for HRT ahead of the unfortunate Rosberg and Liuzzi.