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Sebastian Vettel was left disappointed after narrowly missing out on his first Formula 1 pole in 18 months in China on Saturday, saying he "chickened" onto the brakes too early at the end of his Q3 lap.

After winning the season-opening Australian Grand Prix two weeks ago, Vettel arrived in China chasing Ferrari's first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, with the Italian marque even looking capable of scoring its maiden front-row lock-out since France 2008.

Mercedes managed to bounce back in qualifying as Lewis Hamilton took his sixth consecutive pole position, edging out Vettel by 0.186 seconds to leave the German to split the Silver Arrows in second place. The margin to Valtteri Bottas in P3 was just 0.001 seconds.

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"We'll see tomorrow how important it was [to split the Mercedes]," Vettel said. "Obviously it was a nice session. I enjoyed it a lot. If we had been a bit quicker in the end I would have enjoyed it more.

"But yeah, think I was very happy with the lap I had. Last corner I maybe lost a little bit, maybe chickened onto the brakes a bit too soon. But yeah, obviously it was very close with Valtteri so good job we just got enough margin to make it to the front row."

While Vettel doubts Ferrari can offer a step in performance between its qualifying and race pace, he is confident that the SF70H car will be strong regardless, even if rain hits Shanghai as expected for Sunday.

"I think our car is strong no matter what," Vettel said. "It obviously depends what these guys [Mercedes] are doing. Certainly we've seen in previous years in qualy they seem to be able to really get on top of what they have. I think we can still improve.

"Let's see what the race looks like tomorrow. Conditions I think will be quite different, so maybe we should put fuel in the car and race now! I don't know what happens tomorrow."

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