Coming into qualifying as the arguable favourite after topping all three practice sessions, Rosberg nonetheless came up against stern competition from Hamilton when it mattered as pole came down to a thrilling dash at the end of the session.
Indeed, Hamilton looked to have saved his best until last when he posted a 1min 30.7secs lap on his first run in Q3, putting almost two tenths between himself and Rosberg, while Ferrari and Red Bull’s close company in third to sixth ensured an unexpectedly tight duel for the top spot.
Putting emphasis on the second run, Rosberg crossed the line first to go top with a 1min 30.647secs lap, albeit with Hamilton poised to snatch it off him after hitting his marks in S1 and S2. However, the lap would tail off for the defending champion, leaving him just 0.013s shy at the line, or the equivalent of 82cm.
Following an eye-catching turn of pace in free practice, Ferrari produced its best qualifying performance in terms of pure pace for some time with third and fourth on the timesheets, Kimi Raikkonen leading the way a mere three tenths down on the top spot, while Sebastian Vettel was fourth quickest, less than a tenth further back, but will ultimately start seventh by virtue of his pending three-place grid penalty.
Quick in the twisty first sector but struggling to maintain form over the faster sections of the final sector, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo faded to fifth and sixth quickest, though this becomes fourth and fifth courtesy of Vettel’s penalty.
Sergio Perez will get underway from sixth as the ‘best of the rest’ that would benefit from Vettel’s demotion to seventh, the Ferrari drive sharing row four with Romain Grosjean, who put the difficulties of his weekend so far behind him to reach Q3 for the first time this year en route to eighth.
Gallingly for the Frenchman, he would do so with exactly the same lap time as Perez but will start two places behind him. Nonetheless, with Esteban Gutierrez in tenth as well – behind Nico Hulkenberg – it would prove to be a landmark day for the Haas outfit as a whole.
Outside the top ten, Williams failed to reach Q3 for the second time in three races as Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa found themselves bumped down in the late flurry of laps, while Daniil Kvyat out-qualified Toro Rosso team-mate Carlos Sainz after the Spaniard spun at the Spoon curve on his final effort.
At Honda’s home circuit, Fernando Alonso will start down in 15th as McLaren’s leading contender, while Jolyon Palmer hauled his Renault into the Q2 en route to 16th.
Having struggled for form relative to Alonso in practice, Jenson Button’s troubled weekend continued as he was dumped out of Q1 for potentially his final Japanese Grand Prix, the Briton starting 17th.
Meanwhile, Kevin Magnussen had an error at the final corner to blame for not following Palmer through into Q2, with Marcus Ericsson, Felipe Nasr, Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein bringing up the rear for Sauber and Manor