Nico Rosberg stormed to pole position at the Japanese Grand Prix for a third successive year on Saturday, piling more pressure on world champion Lewis Hamilton.
The German, who has a 23-point lead over Hamilton in the Formula One championship with five races to go, will start alongside his British foe on the front row as the two Mercedes continued their domination in Suzuka.
Rosberg has been quickest all weekend, while Hamilton has been forced to play second fiddle after being cruelly robbed of victory in Malaysia by an engine fire six days ago.
The triple world champion asked questions of his bitter rival, but Rosberg produced a superb lap to pip Hamilton by just 0.013 seconds in a nail-biting finish to qualifying for Sunday’s race.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen will start from third, next to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
“I knew I could do it. I just had to get my head down and nail it,” said Rosberg.
“The end of qualifying was pretty intense but I had a good feeling. I knew if I get the job done and put in a decent lap then it should be enough,” added the German, whose edge over Hamilton was calculated by Mercedes to work out to just 82 centimetres.
Rosberg, who is chasing his first win in Japan and his fourth victory in his last five races, failed to convert pole into victory at Suzuka in 2014 and 2015, losing out to Hamilton both times.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel clocked the fourth-fastest qualifying time but a three-place grid penalty for a first-corner crash with Rosberg in Malaysia means he starts seventh.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who inherited victory in Sepang after Hamilton’s misfortune, qualified fifth ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez, while Vettel starts alongside Romain Grosjean’s Haas on the fourth row.
Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India and Esteban Gutierrez’s Haas rounded out the top 10.
However, there was frustration for McLaren in engine supplier Honda’s home race with Fernando Alonso on row eight and Jenson Button qualifying on row nine.
Hamilton insisted he could still halt Rosberg’s momentum by winning Sunday’s race after doing exactly that the past two years in Japan.
“I’m happy with qualifying,” said Hamilton, who courted controversy this week after hinting his Malaysia heartbreak may have been caused by sabotage from within Mercedes.
“I did as well as I could I think. History has shown you don’t have to be on pole to get the win.”