It was dry for qualifying at Japan so it were the usual suspects who eventually emerged on top. Max Verstappen took pole in the end though both Leclerc and Sainz came very close to beating the Red Bull driver - who is still under investigation for an incident on his out-lap.
Home hero Yuki Tsunoda kicked off dry qualifying with a lap of 1:31.631 to again greet his fans. He was soon followed by his teammate Pierre Gasly. The Frenchman who was just announced as an Alpine driver for 2023 was 4 tenths slower on his discovery lap before returning to the pits to take on a fresh set of soft tyres.
The McLarens were out next to lead the rest of the competitors. While most immediately opted for softs the Mercedes drivers completed their first flying lap on the medium compound Pirelli, an attempt with which they ended up 15th and 18th 10 minutes into the session when everybody had completed at least one timed lap.
By then, Verstappen had gone fastest, a tenth quicker than Sainz and Leclerc, 0.379 ahead of Alonso and 4 tenths ahead of Perez.
Three minutes from the end the Mercedes duo moved up into 6th and 8th thanks to soft tyre runs, sandwiching McLaren's Ricciardo. Lando Norris on the other hand made a mistake at Degner on his first effort and was 7 tenths slower, down in 13th.
The dying seconds of the first session saw Norris rectify that situation while Ocon improved to 6th. Mick Schumacher also had a good run to 13th and into Q2, bouncing back from his heavy crash in yesterday's FP1 that again badly damaged a Haas car. In any case he did a good job as team mate Magnussen was out, along with Gasly who struggled with the brakes, Stroll and both Williams drivers.
The second session went on without medium tyres in sight and again with Verstappen going fastest about halfway though this time less than a tenth faster than Sainz. The gap as slightly more than a tenth to Leclerc and then Ocon, followed by Ricciardo, Hamilton, Alonso, Perez and Russell, all within 4 tenths of the pace setter.
Bottas found himself in 10 with just 0.583s to the front. Behind him were Norris, Vettel, Zhou, Schumacher and Tsunoda.
3 minutes 20 from the end a big pack of cars left the pits for the final dash of laps to secure a position in Q3. Vettel and Ocon were first, followed by Perez, Bottas, Zhou, Schumacher, Tsunoda, the McLarens and the Mercedes duo. Alonso and Norris went out 30 seconds later and only the top three at the time remained in the pits.
Improvements were surprisingly big with Vettel going 5th and Perez jumping to the top of the timing sheets, 0.421s quicker than Verstappen's previous best. Alonso also improved considerably to second with three personal bests.
The big loser was Daniel Ricciardo. The McLaren driver sat in 5th but his failure to improve - partly due to a big lockup in the final chicane ) saw him lose out in 11th while his teammate Norris did the reverse and went on to go 8th fastest. Ricciardo notably missed out on Q3 by 0.003s to Vettel.
The final part of qualifying was another Verstappen affair, topping Leclerc, Sainz and Perez. Fernando Alonso ended up 5th fastest, followed by Vettel, the Mercedes duo, Norris and Ocon. The big event though was when Verstappen braked so hard on the warm-up lap on the exit of Turn 15 than Norris had to go through the grass to avoid a big accident. The incident was to be investigated after the session (again).
The second efforts saw Leclerc improve considerably but strange at 0.010s off of Verstappen. The latter didn't improve while Sainz also went faster, even though not enough to move up from third. Perez ended 4th and a late improvement from Ocon saw the Frenchman qualify 5th, marginally ahead of Hamilton and Alonso.