The writing was on the wall as Michael Schumacher only just avoided bowing out ion the first phase of qualifying, but four Mercedes-powered machines had no answer in Q2, with the German being joined by works team-mate Nico Rosberg and both Force India drivers.
While Red Bull, Renault, Ferrari and McLaren duked it out at the head of the times, Schumacher and co toiled in the drop zone but, despite all embarking on second assaults to make the top ten shoot-out, the bottom seven remained the same through the final five minutes, leaving the seven-time world champion 15th fastest - his worst qualifying position since returning to F1 at the start of the year.
Rosberg was only three spots better off, behind Toro Rosso's Sebastien Buemi on the list of those not to progress, while Adrian Sutil and Tonio Liuzzi filled the gap back to Schumacher. Pedro de la Rosa claimed 16th for Sauber, ahead of the second Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari, neither of whom were realistically expected to make it any further.
Sebastian Vettel reclaimed top spot for Red Bull Racing, with a weekend-best lap of 1min 38.015secs, and was well supported by team-mate Mark Webber who, along with Ferrari's Felipe Massa, helped relegate Q1 pacesetter Robert Kubica to fourth, ahead of Lewis Hamilton. Fernando Alonso, Rubens Barrichello, Jenson Button, Nico Hulkenberg and Vitaly Petrov complete the top ten.