Rosberg, who needs to overturn a 17-point deficit to Hamilton to win the title, finished 0.386s ahead of the Briton, as Mercedes came under unexpectedly strong pressure from Williams. In the end Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa locked out the second row.
Q1 saw Hamilton lead Rosberg, 1m 41.207s to 1m 41.308s, as everyone opted for supersoft tyres in the declining temperatures, but Mercedes got a bit of a scare right at the end when Massa banged in 1m 41.475s.
Further back, Sauber’s Adrian Sutil, with 1m 42.746s, just squeaked into P15 ahead of the unfortunate Romain Grosjean who lapped his Lotus in 1m 42.768s. Pastor Maldonado failed to get the other Lotus through to Q2 too, with 1m 42.860s for 18th, which was marginally slower than Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber on 1m 42.819s.
At the back, Kamui Kobayashi took his Caterham round in 1m 44.540s, as rookie Will Stevens did a solid job to lap his CT05 in 1m 45.095s in his first F1 qualifying session.
Things began to get tight at the top in Q2. Hamilton led with 1m 40.920s, but both Massa and Bottas made late runs to push Rosberg down to fourth, with 1m 41.144s and 1m 41.376s respectively. The German made a crucial mistake by running wide on his only run to finish on 1m 41.459s.
Despite losing his first run when his McLaren needed topping up with fuel, Jenson Button comfortably made Q3 but Kevin Magnussen could only muster 11th in the sister car with 1m 42.198s. Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne was 12th on 1m 42.207s ahead of the Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg on 1m 42.239s and 1m 42.384s. Adrian Sutil lined his Sauber up 15th on 1m 43.074s.
The pressure really ramped up in Q3, and this time it was Hamilton making the mistake. As Rosberg upped the ante with a lap of 1m 40.697s to go fastest, running wide cost Hamilton badly as he stopped the clocks in 1m 41.021s. That left him only marginally ahead of Massa on 1m 41.119s and Bottas on 1m 41.321s.
As ever, it came down to the final runs.
Bottas came up short of pole with 1m 41.025s, but it was a great lap from the Finn which nearly unseated Hamilton. But it was Rosberg’s show as he carved down to 1m 40.480s. Hamilton, meanwhile, had a slightly scruffy final run, lapping in 1m 40.866s, which wasn’t enough to beat his team mate. Massa too came up short, his 1m 41.126s failing to improve on his earlier run.
Daniel Ricciardo improved to 1m 41.267s on his final effort but stayed fifth ahead of outgoing Red Bull team mate Sebastian Vettel on 1m 41.893s. The man who’ll replace Vettel at Red Bull next season was next up, Daniil Kvyat underlining his class with seventh for Toro Rosso on 1m 42.908s.
Behind the Russian Button took eighth in what might be his last Grand Prix with 1m 42.964s for McLaren.
That left the fifth row to the Ferraris; Kimi Raikkonen was ninth on 1m 42.236s as a mistake in Turn 1 early on left Fernando Alonso 10th on 1m 42.866s.
Grosjean has a 20-place penalty for using a sixth power unit, so the grid for what promises to be a thrilling final race of the season will line up thus: Rosberg, Hamilton; Bottas, Massa; Ricciardo, Vettel; Kvyat, Button; Raikkonen, Alonso; Magnussen, Vergne; Perez, Hulkenberg; Sutil, Gutierrez; Maldonado, Kobayashi; Stevens, Grosjean.