Having bided his time in the Q1 and Q2 qualifying sessions, with second- and third-fastest times respectively, Lewis Hamilton played second fiddle to Kimi Raikkonen during the first runs in Q3 before striking back to snatch pole. His lap of 1min 18.404sec pushed Raikkonen, on 1:18.644, back to second place in his Ferrari.
Hamilton's arch-rival Felipe Massa seemed set for third until last-minute improvements from Fernando Alonsoand then Hamilton's McLaren team-mate Heikki Kovalainen left Massa in fifth for a race he must win to stand a realistic chance of eroding Hamilton's seven-point lead. Alonso, the winner in Singapore, banged in a lap of 1:18.852 for Renault but was then beaten to third place by Kovalainen's 1:18.821. Massa's best was 1:18.874.
"This was quite a bit different to qualifying in Singapore," said Hamilton. "Q1 went pretty well and also Q2, but we didn't seem to be as quick as Felipe. In Q3 my first lap wasn't great but I managed to put all the sectors together on my second. The team have done a phenomenal job. There's always been a buzz here, they are fantastic, and when you see it first hand, it's very impressive. I'm very happy.
"I like Fuji, the atmosphere here is so good and the people are among the nicest I have met. The track is cool and the whole feeling here is good.
"Going into Q3 we had already decided what our strategy would be, we had very good pace and were able to outqualify the Ferraris, which is very important for us. We are in the perfect position to make a step forward and score as many points as possible, me and Heikki, but it's going to be a tough race with Kimi there, and Fernando as we can see is also very strong."
Hamilton refused to consider the Championship situation in detail. "I just try to take each race as it comes. Compared to last year I am more ready to win the Championship and it is within my grasp, but it is important to continue with the momentum that we have and I will approach the race the way I have all the others this season."
As Massa cursed problems in getting his tyres to their optimum temperature during his two runs, Raikkonen looked as demonstrative as a sphinx, and none too chirpy for a man on the front row for the first time since Magny-Cours in July, with only Hamilton ahead of him on the grid.
"It's nice to be back," he said, looking for all the world as if, actually, it wasn't, "but I'm not very happy how things are going and not happy with the car, which is frustrating. A condition we've had on the car has been there all day; for sure there's an improvement if we could get things as we want. I was more happy with more fuel in the car, but it's still not the way I want it to be. Usually in the race it turns out to be not too bad, though, so if we can get the win it would be nice, but I'm not really looking at the World Championship right now."
Hamilton's ongoing success – and the increasing likelihood that he will be confirmed in November as the sport's youngest champion – has of late begun to draw criticism from his peers. His old karting sparring partner Robert Kubica this weekend voiced concerns over his robust driving style, but Hamilton said: "I do my talking on the track. Everyone has their own opinion, and I respect that."
The success has also set up an increasingly ticklish situation for the publicity gurus at Santander bank, one of McLaren's leading sponsors, who over the past 15 months have expended a significant sum cementing a strong advertising and promotional image link between their core business and their sponsorship. You cannot go into any Abbey branch without seeing a cardboard cutout of Hamilton that always seems much more animated than a real-life Raikkonen. Yet Santander are due to take their money to Ferrari from 2010.
Abbey will be rebranded as Santander over the next three years, and the problem is exacerbated by Santander's purchase of Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley, who will also get the makeover treatment.
The deals will make Santander Britain's third largest bank, with more than 25 million customers. But thus far there is no link in the British public's collective consciousness between Santander and either Bradford & Bingley or Alliance & Leicester, and Santander have 1,267 British high-street branches to rebrand. Doing that around Lewis Hamilton, world champion, would appear to be a very realistic proposition, given Abbey's success.
Jeremy Davies, the bank's brand and communications director, has admitted: "When we signed up to sponsor McLaren last year, we had no idea of the impact Lewis would make. He's been nothing short of fantastic for us. Awareness of Santander in the UK [is] up from 20 to 70 per cent, and much of that is down to the Lewis factor."
One senior F1 insider remarked in Fuji: "I wouldn't fancy being the Santander executive whose task it is to break the news to his Abbey colleagues, and those at Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley, that the rebranding will have to be achieved via the dubious allure of an obscure Brazilian [Massa] and a taciturn Finn [Raikkonen], rather than potentially the biggest star the sport has known."