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.
As if to emphasise the bleakness of Webber's situation, Raikkonen slammed in a flying lap of 1:35.659s on a fresh set of soft tyres which was immediately trumped by the Mercedes drivers, Hamilton going top with a time of 1:35.078s which was a thumping half a second faster than Rosberg.
That left the last few minutes a game of poker as to who felt safe enough on their existing time, and who felt the need to come back out again to be sure of progressing. The answer was that with the exception of the two Mercedes drivers and Raikkonen, no one felt like taking the risk and so everyone was back out again on fresh options for the final two minutes.
The times tumbled after the chequered flag, an improved effort from Adrian Sutil finally knocking Webber out of the top ten as expected and ultimately down in 14th place; Sutil himself didn't reap the rewards, however, and was himself skittled out of Q3 by a succession of fliers from the likes of Vettel, Alonso, Massa and Jenson Button. Button's new McLaren team mate Sergio Perez wasn't so lucky, however, and was the one of the six cars to fail to progress along with Force India's Sutil and Paul di Resta, Williams' Pastor Maldonado, Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne and of course Mark Webber in the parked Red Bull.
The undoubted surprise of the final flurry of fliers was from Vergne's team mate Daniel Ricciardo who just managed to sneak through in ninth place ahead of Sauber's Nico Hulkenberg with an impressive 1:36.258s, just over a second off Hamilton's earlier effort which remained unbeaten at the top of the Q2 timesheets.
After a moment's breather, Q3 got underway with Vettel first to head out on soft tyres - but oddly, he was recalled to pit lane before setting a flying lap time in what was seemingly a case of Red Bull playing a strategy card in terms of managing their tyres. Having completed in- and out-laps at least meant that Vettel would place ahead of those who didn't bother coming out at all in Q3.
However with less than three minutes remaining in the session, the dam burst and the drivers - including Vettel once more - headed out out on track for their one and only flier, led to the line by Kimi Raikkonen who duly set the first proper time of the session on a new set of options with a lap of 1:34.761s.
Rosberg came across the line seconds later but a wild exit out of the final corner squandered his chance of stealing pole: instead the honours went to his team mate Lewis Hamilton with a time of 1:34.484s which means that he will line up on the front row alongside Kimi Raikkonen: in the final seconds, Alonso slipped into third place ahead of Rosberg, while Massa claimed a third row spot alongside Romain Grosjean who'd had a quiet but solidly effectively qualifying in China.
Ricciardo also put in a flying lap at the end which secured him an impressive seventh position on the grid, while Jenson Button slipped on some medium tyres and cruised around for an over-two minute lap to secure him eighth place. Sebastian Vettel, meanwhile, missed out setting a lap time after outbraking himself and sliding off in turn 14 on his late effort and opting to pull into pit lane, having similarly gone for a set of mediums on which he will now start the race on Sunday. The only driver not to come out in Q3, Nico Hulkenberg, will start from tenth place and be the first driver still to have a choice of tyre compound tomorrow.
As Hamilton celebrated his first pole position for Mercedes - the 27th of his F1 career and his first for a team other than McLaren - there was gloom at the Red Bull garage for whom the day had really gone comprehensively off the rails, and not just for Webber with his fuel pressure issue.
But perhaps the most lasting issue with today's qualifying session is the long periods of track inactivity caused by the tyre supply situation: considering that the current three-round format for qualifying was introduced to spice things up, organisers will be concerned just how much time the TV cameras spent watching an empty track and an inactive pit lane between brief bursts of activity.Full qualifying times available