Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel won a thrilling battle with Lewis Hamilton to take pole for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
The world champion bettered Hamilton's mark in the McLaren by just 0.104 seconds on the very last lap at Sepang.
Red Bull and McLaren filled out the first four as Mark Webber and Jenson Button took third and fourth ahead of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso in fifth.
Button said he expected a fight between McLaren and Red Bull in the race, which starts at 0900 BST on Sunday.
"It looks like it's going to be a fun scrap," said Button.
"We're a lot closer to the Red Bulls than people expected and there's quite a gap behind.
"If it's a dry race, hopefully we'll be able to play around with the Red Bulls a little bit. We've got a very good Kers (power-boost) system and that should help us quite a bit."
The final phase of qualifying was a gripping game of cat-and-mouse between Hamilton and Vettel as Red Bull and McLaren underlined their status as 2011's closest rivals.
Hamilton set the benchmark with his first lap and went even faster with a lap of one minute 34.974secs, only for Vettel to deny the Englishman his first pole since the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix on his final charge.
"Vettel pulled it out of the bag when he needed to," said BBC commentator Martin Brundle. "That's the difference between the great and the good."
His co-commentator David Coulthard added: "Make no bones about it, we've witnessed some beautiful driving from both Vettel and Hamilton."
Webber had set the pace during Friday practice but he was 0.309secs off Vettel's time and lines up third alongside Button, who had been fastest in second qualifying but said he overheated his tyres on his final run.
McLaren left Australia believing they had better race pace than the Red Bulls and both drivers will be out to make that advantage count over 56 laps on Sunday.
"We just have to keep pushing until we can wear Red Bull down and then we can start winning races," said McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh.
In contrast, Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali admitted his team were still looking for answers after Alonso qualified fifth with Felipe Massa seventh.
"It is a strange weekend," he said. "We need to work hard to make sure we gain back some performance."
Alonso added: "It was not easy. We only had one chance, one lap as we only had one set of soft tyres left in Q3.
"But being fifth is the maximum of our possibilities in qualifying. A second gap between pole and us is too much, we need to improve."
Renault recovered from reliability problems in practice as Nick Heidfeld split the Ferraris in sixth place with Vitaly Petrov, who finished third in Australia, eighth.
Mercedes boss Ross Brawn conceded the German team is still not capable of challenging the front-runners and Michael Schumacher struggled to find performance on a track where he has taken the chequered flag three times.
The 42-year-old will line up 11th while his German team-mate Nico Rosberg will start eighth.
"Schumacher will be disturbed by this," commented BBC pundit Eddie Jordan. "This is not a car that is set up for him and gone are the days when he had the advantage as he did with Ferrari."
Scot Paul di Resta will line up in 14th place and was encouraged to out-qualify his more experienced Force India team-mate Adrian Sutil for the second race running.
"I'm delighted with that given how I had struggled in practice," said Di Resta. "There is everything to play for in the race now especially with tricky weather conditions predicted."
Williams rookie Pastor Maldonado was the midfield fall guy joining the six Lotus, Virgin and Hispania drivers making their exit in Q1.
"I didn't expect to be out in Q1," said the Venezuelan. "We lost a bit of performance but the race strategy could make a difference and I hope to be in the points."
There was some positive progress from Hispania and Team Lotus, however.
Hispania will start their first grand prix of the season after the team fell foul of the 107% rule, which prevents cars competing if they are too slow in the first phase of qualifying, last time out in Australia.
"Hispania looked better here," commented Brundle. "But let's not kid ourselves, they are still six seconds off the front-runners - but at least they're in the race."
Lotus were buoyed as Heikki Kovalainen was just 0.4secs shy of Rubens Barrichello in Q2, with the Brazilian's Williams the last car to go into the second stage of qualifying.
"Heikki feels the lap time was in the car," said Lotus technical director Mike Gascoyne. "At least we've shown what we can do; for once it's nice to be disappointed."
Qualifying had been stopped with less than 10 minutes gone when a section of engine cover flew clear of Sebastien Buemi's Toro Rosso and prompted a red flag.
After the debris was cleared, Buemi's car was patched up and the Swiss driver, who is rumoured to be under pressure to keep his place within the team, qualified in 12th place.
With heavy thunderstorms forecast for Sunday's race day there could be yet more drama to come when the second grand prix of the season gets under way.