Red Bull enjoyed mixed success as Sebastian Vettel secured his third consecutive Chinese pole position but Mark Webber will start 18th after dropping out in Q1.
Vettel was 0.715 seconds quicker than McLaren’s Jenson Button who joins him on the front row.
“The gap surprised us. Obviously we did it again but I try to remind myself and the team that every time is tough. It wasn’t straightforward,” the world champion said afterwards.
Lewis Hamilton will line up third tomorrow ahead of Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg who drove a flawless lap to secure his best grid position for twelve months, ten places ahead of team-mate Michael Schumacher.
Ferrari pair Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa will start on row three but were a staggering 1.5 seconds off the pace.
Jaime Alguersuari and Paul di Resta both made it into Q3 for the first time in their F1 careers to qualify seventh and eighth. Sebastien Buemi and Vitaly Petrov rounded out the top ten.
Such was Vettel’s dominance he did not bother to complete his second flying lap in Q3 as he strolled to his eighteenth career pole position – drawing level with the likes of Hamilton and Mario Andretti.
But Webber did not enjoy the same serenity as he crashed out in the first qualifying session after choosing to run on the slower harder tyre, only to be squeezed out by Williams’ Pastor Maldonado as the chequered flag fell.
“It was a very frustrating day,” said Webber. “We just weren’t quick enough at the end of the day.
“I thought we had enough to get through but that’s the way it goes, we had a few plates spinning.”
It was the first time a Red Bull car had failed to get through Q1 since Vettel failed to during a wet qualifying session for the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2009.
McLaren duo of Button and Hamilton once again provided the opposition to Red Bull but will be disheartened by the large margin between the teams having run them close seven days ago in Malaysia.
“I thought we could fight for pole, but the pace of Sebastian in Q3 was phenomenal,” said Button. “This is my best grid slot of the year and from where we were on Friday we’ve improved the car a lot.
Hamilton chose only to run once during Q3, unlike Vettel and Button, and will have an extra set of fresh soft tyres for tomorrow’s race.
But most of the drama came with Webber’s demise in Q1 and Petrov’s breakdown in Q2.
The Renault driver lost power after completing a fast lap which brought out the red flags with just two minutes of the session remaining.
When the session resumed five minutes later, eleven cars jostled in the pit-lane to get best track position. Renault team-mate Nick Heidfeld was Petrov’s chief casualty as the German had not set a time and had his lap subsequently ruined by traffic.
The first session saw Lotus, Virgin and Hispania occupy their almost customary back three row slots.
Mike Gascoyne, chief technical officer for Lotus, told The Chequered Flag that the team were not quite ready to make it into Q2 but said it “was coming”.
Both Virgin and Hispania cars qualified within 107% of the fastest lap in Q1 set by Rosberg.
Vettel, searching for his fifth consecutive race victory, tomorrow will bid to become the first man to win two Chinese Grand Prix when it starts at 8am (BST).
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1.33.706
2. Jenson Button McLaren 1.34.421
3. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1.34.463
4. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1.34.670
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1.35.119
6. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1.35.145
7. Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso 1.36.158
8. Paul di Resta Force India 1.36.190
9. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 1.36.203
10. Vitaly Petrov Renault N/A
11. Adrian Sutil Force India 1.35.874
12. Sergio Perez Sauber 1.36.053
13. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1.36.236
14. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1.36.457
15. Rubens Barrichello Williams 1.36.465
16. Nick Heidfeld Renault 1.36.611
17. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1.36.956
18. Mark Webber Red Bull 1.36.468
19. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus 1.37.894
20. Jarno Trulli Lotus 1.38.318
21. Jerome d’Ambrosio Virgin 1.39.119
22. Timo Glock Virgin 1.39.708
23. Vitantonio Liuzzi Hispania 1.40.212
24. Narain Karthikeyan Hispania 1.40.445