SUZUKA, Japan - Red Bull's Mark Webber took full advantage of mechanical problems plaguing his title-seeking team-mate Sebastian Vettel Saturday as he snatched his first pole position of the year at the Japanese Grand Prix.
With all eyes on the runaway championship leader, who could secure a fourth successive world title on Sunday, the soon-to-retire Australian lapped in 1min 30.915secs to push Vettel into second on the grid.
Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes will start behind the Red Bulls on the second row alongside Lotus's Romain Grosjean, with Felipe Massa and Nico Rosberg on the third rank.
Nico Hulkenberg timed seventh, just ahead of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso. If Vettel wins on Sunday, the Spaniard will need to finish inside the top eight to keep the title race alive.
Webber's rivalry with Vettel reached boiling point earlier this season when the German ignored team orders and overtook him to win the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Webber is quitting Formula One at the end of the season. But he said pole position was a sweet farewell to pacy Suzuka, despite the advantage of Vettel driving without his speed-boosting Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS).
"Sebastian had a problem so it's a little bit of a hollow pole," the 37-year-old told reporters. "But you take them where you can get them. It's not like they hand them out. You've still got to put the laps in.
"We did the laps when they counted and that's what was important. It's a very, very nice farewell pole here on my last attempt at Suzuka on a really phenomenal circuit."
Webber pulled no punches when asked if he would let Vettel pass him if asked on Sunday.
"He'll do his race tomorrow and I'll do my race," insisted Webber. "Seb's had a phenomenal year. It's not like it's the last race of the championship... In general we'll be there for ourselves tomorrow."
Vettel refused to blame his technical issues for missing out on what would have been a fifth straight pole in Japan and his fourth in a row.
"I had a problem with the KERS system but it's not my style to make excuses," said Vettel. "Congratulations to Mark.
"We decided to change the battery on the car because we had an issue," added the 26-year-old, who finished qualifying without the KERS boost.
"We had the same problem this morning and in qualifying so we have a little bit of time now to have a look if there's something else broken or damaged. Hopefully it works tomorrow."
Webber had also proved quickest in the morning's final free practice in a session halted by a red flag after Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso burst into flames at the rear end due to overheating brakes.
Before him, there was early drama as Esteban Gutierrez's Sauber caught fire after being rolled back into the garage with the driver still in his seat.
The rampaging Vettel has a massive 77-point lead with only 125 available from the last five races after winning in South Korea last weekend, and is set to become only the third man to win the world title four times in a row.
Hamilton voiced satisfaction with third after a strong weekend so far.
"We knew it was almost impossible to get ahead of these guys," said the Briton. "They've had a much better package than me for a long, long time but to be as close as we are is a huge compliment to the team. My car felt awesome so I can't imagine how it felt for them. I'm looking forward to racing them tomorrow.
"I hope that we can at least put up a little bit of a fight for these guys - don't let them walk away with it too easily."
Proceedings at Suzuka have been overshadowed by the tragic death of former Marussia reserve driver Maria de Villota, 33, whose body was found in a Seville hotel room on Friday.
An autopsy found de Villota, who suffered serious head injuries in an accident in testing last year, died of natural causes.