Lewis Hamilton took the first pole position of his Mercedes career in China with Kimi Raikkonen throwing down the gauntlet in second place and Fernando Alonso third.
Mark Webber stopped on track in Q2 with a fuel shortage issue and was sent to the back of the grid by stewards.
Given the tyre management abilities of Lotus, Raikkonen is in a strong position, although he has questioned whether the Lotus has the pace to win tomorrow. Whether he can make one less stop than his rivals and turn it to his advantage, time will tell. More likely it will mean that he can balance out the stint lengths better than his rivals.
Ferrari are well placed; they were arguably not as quick in qualifying as they had hoped to be, with Alonso third and Massa fifth, but Alonso said that he was very happy with the race set up and their long run performance in practice backs this up. They had good pace and less degradation than rivals.
Rosberg disappointed with fourth fastest time, four tenths slower than Hamilton, again struggling to deliver in the crucial part of qualifying.
It was Hamilton’s 27th career pole position on a track where he has won twice already and it was Mercedes’ second in a row in China. He took a gamble, going out quite late, but it worked out for them.
The last seven pole positions have been set by either Hamilton or Vettel. Raikkonen’s front row slot is his best qualifying result since his comeback.
It was a very strange Q3 session, with the top ten drivers not wanting to use up tyres, given the restrictions imposed by the behaviour of the Pirelli tyres. The cars only went out with a couple of minutes to go, to do one run.
Knowing they didn’t have a chance of pole, Vettel and Button went for the medium tyres with the intention of doing a different race strategy from the rest. It should make for a very interesting race. The cars starting on used soft tyres will need to pit very early, possibly within the first seven or eight laps.
Vettel had a problem with braking and locked a wheel, meaning Button ended up qualifying in front of him, eighth with Vettel ninth. Daniel Ricciardo did a very good lap to get seventh place.
On the warmest day of the weekend so far, the other major drama centred on Mark Webber once again, this time because the Australian stopped out on track with fuel issues. The team said it was a fuel pressure problem; he was instructed to save fuel on the way back to the pits and risked facing the same problem Lewis Hamilton had in Spain last year, where he was sent to the back of the grid for not being able to supply a fuel sample. The stewards duly penalised him and he will start from the back of the grid tomorrow.
In the Q1 session, the Mercedes led the way with Hamilton ahead of Rosberg and Massa, with Webber ahead of Alonso and Vettel. But the times were still not as fast as Massa’s best time from Friday FP2.
At the back, Bianchi did an outstanding first lap to go faster than the Toro Rosso pair, who found time on their second runs and made it through. Gutierrez and Bottas were dragged down into the drop zone. The late timing of his run left him no time for a second run.
In Q2 Webber stopped out on circuit, having been told to “save fuel” after setting what was the fifth fastest lap at that time. He ended up 14th.
“It’s a shame,” said Webber. “We had a fuel pressure problem and we are out of position. If you are not prepared right that’s what happens. I can move forward but how far we will find out. I found out 30 seconds before (that there was a problem).”
Team boss Christian Horner said, “Unfortunately in Q2 the amount of fuel that was required to be put into the car from the fuel rig was not fully delivered. This was due to an error with the fuel bowser that meant it under-delivered 3kg of fuel. Therefore on Mark’s in-lap we saw large drop outs in the fuel tank collector and the car unfortunately ran dry of fuel, which is obviously frustrating.”
It was a similar problem to the one Vettel suffered in Abu Dhabi last November, where he took the option to start from the pit lane and change his set up to help overtaking in the race with less wing and a longer 7th gear.
Team manager Jonathan Wheatley made a public radio message informing team principal Christian Horner that the fuel bowser had been quarantined.
Also in trouble was Sergio Perez, the McLaren driver falling out in Q2 half a second slower than Jenson Button. Both Force India’s disappointed with 11th and 13th places, but Di Resta has good strategy options for the race, starting just outside the top ten.
Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo did a great job to get into Q3, as did Hulkenberg.
CHINESE GRAND PRIX, Shanghai, Qualifying
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m34.484s
2. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m34.761s + 0.277
3. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m34.788s + 0.304
4. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m34.861s + 0.377
5. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m34.933s + 0.449
6. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m35.364s + 0.880
7. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m35.998s + 1.514
8. Jenson Button McLaren 2m05.673s + 31.189
9. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull No Q3 time set
10. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber No Q3 time set
11. Paul di Resta Force India 1m36.287s + 1.209s
12. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m36.314s + 1.236s
13. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m36.405s + 1.327s
14. Mark Webber * Red Bull 1m36.679s + 1.601s
15. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m37.139s + 2.061s
16. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m37.199s + 2.121s
17. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m37.769s + 1.976
18. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m37.990s + 2.197
19. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m38.780s + 2.987
20. Max Chilton Marussia 1m39.537s + 3.744
21. Charles Pic Caterham 1m39.614s + 3.821
22. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m39.660s + 3.867
* Webber will start from the back of the grid