Sebastian Vettel has ended Brawn GP's domination of the early stages of the 2009 Formula 1 World Championship campaign, by storming to Red Bull Racing's maiden pole position in the top flight in qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai this weekend.

Vettel may have covered the fewest laps of any of the leading contenders following problems during practice, but he did not let that hold him back as he produced a superb lap in Q3 to bring Brawn GP's hegemony crashing back down to earth - with Renault's Fernando Alonso and the sister Red Bull of Mark Webber similarly conspiring to spoil the Brackley-based outfit's party in joining the young German in the top three.

With the track the hottest it had been all weekend to-date, talk of rain for race day and cars having been pirouetting left, right and centre throughout practice, qualifying dawned full of anticipation. It would not disappoint, and Q3, as ever, was a breathless affair.

The early blows in the final, crucial phase of proceedings were traded between Webber and Brawn GP pairing Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, with Vettel keeping his powder dry and saving his efforts for one sole run later on. With the times tumbling as the seconds ticked down, Webber blitzed the benchmark by almost seven tenths of a second, but if you believed that was good enough to seal the top spot then you were mistaken.

Within moments, the Australian had been pipped by an inspired Alonso - with Renault the first of the non-diffuser teams to trial its new 'double-decker' in China, the result of which had been a scant three laps in FP3, in which the Spaniard had posted only the 19th-fastest time - and then both drivers found their efforts blown out of the water by a stunning effort from Vettel, visibly elated at having replicated his feat from Monza last year. Now to repeat it on race day too.

Behind the leading trio will be the two Brawns - Barrichello gaining the upper hand on Button for the first time this year - Toyota's Jarno Trulli and the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, who appears already to have relinquished all hope of regaining his crown this season.

The top ten was completed by FP3 pace-setter Nico Rosberg for Williams, defending F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton - who lived up to his promise of driving McLaren-Mercedes into the top ten for the first time in 2009 - and Scuderia Toro Rosso new boy S?bastien Buemi, who stunned paddock observers by dragging the small Faenza-based squad's troubled STR4 significantly higher up the grid than anyone, inside or outside of the team, could possibly have expected.

The greatest surprise of Q2 was perhaps the disappearance of Toyota ace Timo Glock, who was already running with a five-place penalty hanging over his head for a gearbox change during practice - and 14th position in qualifying will be converted into 19th on the starting grid, leaving the young German with much to do if he is to haul himself up into the points for the third grand prix in succession on Sunday.

Another big name to drop out prematurely - as in Malaysia a fortnight ago - was Ferrari's Felipe Massa just ahead of Glock in 13th, with Ferrari running KERS-less for the first time in Shanghai, leaving only three cars using the controversial energy-saving device three races into the new campaign.

One of them - Nick Heidfeld - was another man to fail to make the Q3 cut, along with a traffic-afflicted Heikki Kovalainen in the second McLaren and Williams' Kazuki Nakajima, who again failed to keep pace with team-mate Rosberg.

There was happier news, however, for Hamilton, who looked rapid indeed as he forced his way into the top ten shoot-out for the first time in 2009 at the third time of asking - as did the extremely impressive Buemi for STR, the rookie scraping through to Q3 in contrast to highly-rated team-mate and namesake S?bastien Bourdais, who had fallen out of contention considerably earlier.

Perhaps tellingly, though, the top ten at the end of Q2 was composed of Red Bull duo Vettel and Webber - with the former again having left it perilously late before heading out for his first flying lap, but responding consummately to the pressure and pulling it out of the bag when it mattered the most - followed by Barrichello, Button, Trulli, Hamilton, Alonso, Rosberg, Raikkonen in the sole Ferrari to make the cut and the outstanding Buemi.

The biggest scalp of Q1, meanwhile, was a grip-less Robert Kubica in the BMW-Sauber. Whilst it was on occasion a not-too unfamiliar sight to see team-mate Heidfeld fall at the first hurdle last year, to lose one of the chief 2008 title protagonists and a podium contender only two races ago in Melbourne so early on was certainly a surprise. The Pole had tried - and been unimpressed by - KERS in Friday practice but had chosen to abandon it for qualifying, and with the BMWs looking all at sea it was the man from Krak?w who was the most high-profile victim.

Heidfeld edged through to Q2 in twelfth, but Bourdais - who ran wide on his final effort - the under-fire Nelsinho Piquet and Force India duo Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella joined Kubica in failing to make the cut.

Other highlights of Q1 included Webber 'doing a Hamilton' by getting acquainted with the gravel trap on the entry to the pit-lane, Hamilton and McLaren finally showing some decent pace in 2009 up in fourth at the end of the session and the Red Bulls successfully overcoming FP3 driveshaft woes that had limited Webber and Vettel to a mere 15 laps between them in the morning.

The top ten at the end of the opening part of qualifying was constituted by Brawn GP pace-setters Button and Barrichello, Webber, Hamilton, FP3 leading light Rosberg, the two Ferraris of Raikkonen and Massa, the impressive Buemi and Toyota pairing Trulli and Glock - but who would have anticipated the surprises that were to follow?

To see the qualifying times in full, click here


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