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 S?bastien 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 P?rez 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 P?rez, 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 P?rez 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 P?rez 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.

The Scot brilliantly made it into the top ten on his 25th birthday and again out-qualified his Force India team-mate Adrian Sutil, who wound up eleventh, joined in the fall guy section by P?rez, Sauber team-mate Kobayashi, a scrappy Schumacher, Barrichello, a very frustrated Heidfeld and Maldonado, with just 15th and 17th places compounding what has been the worst start to an F1 season in Williams' history.

The greatest drama of Q1 - indeed, the greatest drama of qualifying full-stop - was Mark Webber's unexpected exit from the fray. The Australian had suffered electrical woes in FP3 - if there's a problem on a Red Bull in F1 2011, seemingly it will be on Mark's - and his mechanics were still working on it when qualifying began.

Deprived of KERS again - much like in Malaysia - Webber ventured out for his final run at the end of the opening phase of qualifying on hard tyres still, and it proved to be a major strategic error as the 34-year-old was unable to do enough, just hauling himself to safety but subsequently being pipped by both Schumacher and Maldonado. The first time Webber had dropped out at the initial stage in more than two years, he was more than three tenths of a second shy of making the cut.

Joining the six-time grand prix-winner on the early sidelines were the more usual suspects; Team Lotus duo Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli - the T128 encountering difficulty in getting heat into its tyres again in the cooler conditions more reminiscent of Melbourne - Virgin Racing pairing J?r?me D'Ambrosio and the hapless HRTs of Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan, who nonetheless comfortably made it in under the 107 per cent cut-off. Others to flirt with danger during Q1 were Massa, Barrichello and the two Renaults of Heidfeld and Petrov, but all four ultimately made it comfortably through.

With practice pace-setters Vettel, Button and Hamilton proving to be fairly evenly-matched at the front, there were star-turns, too, from Alguersuari in the Toro Rosso - who sprung a surprise by topping the times himself at one stage to the tune of a staggering six tenths of a second - Rosberg, Petrov and di Resta, who belied the fact that he had missed the entirety of FP2 on Friday with fuel pump failure by vaulting into a superb second place in the closing stages.

The final Q1 top ten was composed of Rosberg, Petrov, Alonso and Massa - with Ferrari again feeling the need to bolt on a set of soft rubber for the second run - Schumacher, Vettel, the impressive di Resta, Heidfeld, Barrichello and Button.

To see the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix qualifying times in full, click here



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