McLaren-Mercedes had threatened to give him a run for his money like they had done at Sepang, but ultimately, it was all about one man again in qualifying for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix, as Red Bull Racing star and F1 20101 World Championship leader Sebastian Vettel blitzed his rivals to make it three pole positions in swift succession in Shanghai – and six from the last seven races.
Vettel laid down an immediate marker in Q3 with a lap time that was a gaping seven tenths of a second quicker than McLaren rival Jenson Button on his opening effort – setting the fastest lap ever seen around the Shanghai International Circuit – as team-mate Lewis Hamilton elected to make just one run and save a brand new set of soft tyres for the race, perhaps mindful of comments made by the Woking-based outfit's technical director Paddy Lowe.
The 2008 F1 World Champion's sole 'flyer' was not enough to threaten the front row, however, and placed Hamilton just third, behind Vettel and Button in what was something of an anti-climax to the session, with the pole-sitter's margin at the close remaining seven tenths as the Red Bull RB7 palpably excels in the cool conditions.
Further back, Nico Rosberg pulled a rabbit out of the hat with an excellent fourth place, comfortably displacing the two Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, who will begin the grand prix alongside one another on the third row of the grid, almost one-and-a-half seconds shy of pole once again.
Completing the top ten were Jaime Alguersuari in a superb seventh for Scuderia Tor Rosso, separated from his ninth-placed team-mate Sébastien Buemi by an inspired Paul di Resta in the Force India, with Vitaly Petrov in P10, unable to set a lap time in Q3 after his Lotus Renault GP broke down in Q2.
With Hamilton, Button and Vettel again setting the pace at the front in Q2, Petrov had just gone fourth-quickest when his Renault gave up the ghost, coasting to a halt jammed in gear and bringing out the red flags. That seriously compromised team-mate Nick Heidfeld, who had only just left the garage for his one and only run himself after leaving it the latest of any of the Q2 bunch.
That prompted a major rush when the session re-started with a fraction over two minutes left to run, with a long queue at the end of the pit-lane as the drivers knew that some of them may not make it round in time for a final fling. Sergio Pérez stole a march on his rivals by getting right to the head of the queue, followed by Massa – and as the action got underway again, it was Pérez, Rosberg, Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, Kamui Kobayashi, Pastor Maldonado and Heidfeld in particular who were in danger of missing the cut.
With everybody squabbling over track position to the extent of almost touching wheels, an aggressive Schumacher closed the door on Heidfeld, whilst Massa nailed Pérez to move to the front of the order. All of the eleven cars out on-track made it across the line in time – although in the case of di Resta, literally only just – but in truth, with traffic a major issue, there were few improvements.
Rosberg found his effort compromised by Pérez but was still the only man to discernibly make any progress, meaning the Q3 participants were composed of Hamilton, Button, Vettel, Petrov, Alonso, Massa, Buemi, Alguersuari – the two Toro Rossos having been confident enough not to even need to head out in that final dash – Rosberg and di Resta.