Nico Rosberg has snatched pole position from teammate Lewis Hamilton when qualifying was red-flagged after Daniil Kvyat crashed his Toro Rosso in an enormous accident.
Rosberg set the fastest time of Q3 during the drivers’ first quick laps, but Kvyat’s shunt as they set out on their second runs neutralised the session with just 30 seconds remaining before the FIA decided not to resume running.
Kvyat responded immediately to calls from his pit wall and said he was okay before walking away from the scene of the crash.
The red flag prevented Hamilton from challenging his teammate’s 0.076-second advantage, handing the German his third pole position of the season.
“Very happy,” he said. “It’s fantastic after such a difficult weekend in Singapore to be back to our usual strength today. I’m really grateful for that.”
Hamilton, who currently leads Rosberg in the championship by 41 points, said mistakes on his first lap cost him pole.
“The first lap I lost a bit of time in turn 11 and I think in the last corner,” he said, “but it doesn’t really matter.
“I’m glad that — I’m don’t know if it was Ricciardo or Kvyat — they are safe.”
Valtteri Bottas was the victory of the Williams-Red Bull Racing-Ferrari battle, with the three teams having to choose their set-up strategies with just one hour of practice after losing Friday’s practice sessions to rain.
Though the Williams looked a step behind Red Bull Racing in free practice three, Bottas logged a fastest time just 0.4 seconds off the pole lap to lead the rest of the frontrunners.
“It’s very good for us,” said the Finn. “We came into this weekend with a good set-up for the dry.
“Today was one of the most difficult Saturdays we had because there was rain on Friday and because here qualifying is very important.”
Behind Bottas qualified Sebastian Vettel in fourth and two tenths of a second further back, while the second Williams and Ferrari driver by Felipe Massa and Kimi Räikkönen were almost tied on times a further tenth of a second back.
Daniel Ricciardo’s P7 is the best Red Bull Racing looked capable of after the Australian looked like a potential second row challenger during free practice, but he lost great deal of time on the long back straight in the third sector to his Mercedes and Ferrari-powered rivals.
Romain Grosjean set a token time for eighth-quickest and qualified ahead of Sergio Perez in the Force India, who was due to complete just one timed lap when Kvyat crashed.
Kvyat was classified tenth, but his starting position will be provisional based on how many parts will need to be replaced after the accident.
QUALIFYING TWO, P11 — P15
With Max Verstappen unable to rejoin qualifying after his car stopped on track, only four cars were destined to join the eliminated scrapheap in Suzuka.
Fernando Alonso and his McLaren were always going to be halted in the second session, and he duly bowed out as slowest of Q2 in P14, three tenths of a second behind the rest of the session.
Nico Hülkenberg missed out on a Q3 berth by a single tenths after Grosjean pipped him while the German was in the pits, and he, Carlos Sainz and Pastor Maldonado will start from P11, P12, and P13 after they were separated by less than 0.1 seconds.
QUALIFYING ONE P16 — P20
Teams took to the track in droves in an attempt to continue gathering data after practice was condensed into a single session earlier on Saturday, and almost every driver used the hard tyre as they felt their way through the session.
Most stuck with the prime compound, too, with only Grosjean, Max Verstappen and Kvyat setting times in the top ten on the medium compound.
As the lap times crept downwards as more rubber was laid into the track it became increasingly obvious that McLaren-Honda was in trouble.
The session shook itself out and left Jenson Button, who considers Japan his second home race, in P16 and out, just behind teammate Alonso, who snuck through to the second session.
Button used his pit-to-car radio to complain that, in McLaren’s position, it cannot afford mistakes, a pointed reference to his dissatisfaction with the team’s performance.
Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr in their Saubers were eliminated in P17 and P18, but Nasr in particular lost out when Verstappen’s Toro Rosso lost electrics and stopped on the exit of the hairpin, neutralising the circuit and preventing the Brazilian from improving his time.
Will Stevens outqualified his teammate Alexander Rossi in nineteenth and twentieth, but the American failed to set a time within 107 per cent of the fastest time of the session and will have to appeal to the stewards for permission to race.