Lewis Hamilton will start from pole position for the first time for his new team Mercedes in the 2013 F1 Grand Prix of China, after a flurry of post-chequered flag flying laps saw him finish 0.277s ahead of Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen.
But the session proved a disaster for Red Bull, with Sebastian Vettel making a rare late mistake in Q3 leaving him starting from ninth place on the grid for Sunday's race, and Mark Webber failing to make it through to Q3 after being hit by a fuel pick-up issue.
It had been a very long pause before qualifying even got underway on Saturday afternoon, as everyone on pit lane conserved their precious supply of tyres waiting for someone else to take the lead. It was a full eight minutes into the session before Marussia's Jules Bianchi grudgingly headed out, soon joined by his team mate Max Chilton and by the Toro Rosso drivers Danniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, which finally opened the floodgates.
Bianchi's initial benchmark was a time of 1:39.025s but predictably this was soon slashed first to 1:35.959s by Mercedes' Nico Rosberg and then to 1:35.793s by Rosberg's team mate Lewis Hamilton 14 minutes into the 20 minute Q1 session. What quickly became apparent, however, was just how incredibly short-lived the option qualifying tyres were proving to be: for many, one fast lap was all that the soft compounds had in them at Shanghai, after which there proved little point in most of them staying out further.
Williams' Valtteri Bottas was the final driver to head out on track, and his single effort of 1:37.769s simply wasn't good enough to put him out of the elimination zone. Also missing out on progressing to Q2 was Sauber's Esteban Gutiérrez who was a further two tenths back, while Marussia comprehensively won the battle of the back row with both their drivers ending up handily ahead of the two Caterhams.
It has been a close-run thing for the Toro Rosso drivers, both Ricciardo and Vergne needing second runs to get them to safety. And Force India's Adrian Sutil was also through despite being very unhappy with an encounter with Kimi Raikkonen in which he accused the Lotus star of impeding him on his flying lap.
But through they all were, and as the second round of qualifying got underway there was little repeat of the reticence to come out that had been apparent in Q1: Sebastian Vettel was out of the Red Bull garage after just a minute, setting an early banker of 1:36.260s on pre-used softs which was a strategy widely adopted by many of those joining him out on the 16-turn, 3.387-mile circuit.
Fernando Alonso went faster a couple of minutes later with a time of 1:36.186s in the Ferrari, but there was drama in turn 14 as Mark Webber pulled off the track and behind the barrier, having apparently run out of fuel just after posting his first time of 1:36:679s - in the top ten for now but never likely to still be in there come the end of the session, which meant that at least one of the Red Bulls was going to miss out on Q3.