Mark Webber powered to his first pole position of the season at Suzuka, finishing ahead of team-mate Sebastian Vettel, whose session was compromised by a KERS issue.
Championship leader Vettel’s problems began in FP3 when he missed the final, option tyre runs of the session due to a problem with his car’s energy recovery system.
The problem seemed to have been cured as Vettel then sailed through the opening segments of qualifying with ease, ending Q2 at the top of timesheet just over two tenths ahead of Webber.
In Q3, however, he ran into trouble. Keen to stake his claim to a fifth consecutive Japanese Grand Prix pole position, Vettel was first out on track in the top-10 shootout. However, midway through his lap his race engineer got on the radio to tell him “KERS shutdown”. The problem led to his first run being over three tenths of a second slower than Webber’s, the deficit also caused by a mistake at the exit of Spoon corner.
In the second run, there were no driver errors as Vettel set session-best times in the first and third sectors but a conservative middle sector saw him miss out on pole for the first time since the Belgian Grand Prix.
Webber meanwhile, was continuing the good form he has shown all weekend. His first run in Q3 netted him a time of 1:30.975 and at that point he was the only driver to record a sub-1m31s lap.
He then shaved eight hundredths of a second off that time to land his first front-of-grid start since last year’s Korean Grand Prix.
“The laps weren’t too bad to be honest,” he said of the 12th pole position of his career. “You always want a little bit more here and there but in general it was pretty good. Sebastian had a problem in qualifying, so a little bit of a hollow pole position if you like, but I’m happy to be on pole. You’ve got to grab the opportunities when you can and still put the laps in. It’s a very nice farewell for me to have pole here on my last attempt at Suzuka, a really phenomenal circuit. I’ll never forget the first sector today.”
Vettel, meanwhile, said he was happy with his second place. “We did have an issue in qualifying but I’m not a big fan of ‘without this, with this, if this’,” he said. “It’s always unknown. As a fact, we are P2. So, happy, obviously, with the result. Front row for the team, which is great.”
With the Red Bulls locking out the front row, third place went to Lewis Hamilton, who admitted that third on the grid is a good result against Red Bull rivals who he said have “had a better package for a long time now”.
“I’m really happy,” he said. “Realistically it was difficult, or almost impossible, to finish ahead of these guys. They’ve had a much better package generally for a long, long time but I think we’ve come a long way and to be as close as we are, I think, is a huge compliment to the team.
“The car was feeling good,” he added. “My car felt awesome so I can’t imagine how it felt for them – and congratulations to Mark. I’m looking forward to racing them tomorrow.”
Fourth place went to Lotus’ Romain Grosjean, the fifth time in sixth races that the Frenchman has out-qualified team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who will line up in ninth place tomorrow.
Felipe Massa, meanwhile, beat team-mate Fernando Alonso for the sixth time this season. The Brazilian will line up fifth on the grid, in front of Nico Rosberg in the second Mercedes and Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg. Alonso will start from eighth position, ahead of Raikkonen and 10th-placed Jenson Button.
Elsewhere, in Q1, Jean-Eric Vergne was forced to pull over at the side of the track with smoke and flames billowing out from the back of his Toro Rosso, an incident that briefly brought out the red flags.
“I thought I had an engine problem, but then I realised the rear brakes were stuck,” he said afterwards. “I tried to brake and there was nothing in the pedal, then I saw the fire and had to stop the car.
“The team will have a lot of work to do tonight, because it took quite a while for the fire to be out,” he added. “Hopefully the main components are undamaged, the engine and gearbox, but there will be many things to change.”
2013 Japanese Grand Prix – Qualifying Result
1 Mark Webber Red Bull Racing 1:30.915
2 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing 1:31.089
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:31.253
4 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:31.365
5 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:31.378
6 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:31.397
7 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:31.644
8 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:31.665
9 Kimi Räikkönen Lotus 1:31.684
10 Jenson Button McLaren 1:31.827
11 Sergio Perez McLaren 1:31.989
12 Paul di Resta Force India 1:31.992
13 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:32.013
14 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:32.063
15 Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:32.093
16 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:32.485
17 Adrian Sutil Force India 1:32.890
18 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:33.357
19 Max Chilton Marussia 1:34.320
20 Charles Pic Caterham 1:34.556
21 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:34.879
22 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:34.958