Sebastian Vettel took the second pole position of his career – and Red Bull’s first – using just a single lap in Q2 and Q3 to deliver a perfect performance.
Fernando Alonso surprised by grabbing second ahead of Mark Webber as Renault-engined cars locked out the top three – bumping back the Brawn duo of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button.
None of the drivers were able to get through the first part of qualifying without having to resort to the super-soft tyre.
After their Malaysian Grand Prix disaster Ferrari took care to ensure Felipe Massa got a second lap in and wasn’t eliminated before Q2.
This time it was Robert Kubica’s turn to suffer an early exclusion – the BMW driver slumped to 18th after making a mistake at turn 12 on his quick lap.
Lewis Hamilton, running a new front wing and diffuser on the MP4/24, showed much improved pace. But team make Heikki Kovalainen, who’d chosen not to run the new wing, only narrowly made it into Q2.
Aside from Kubica the drivers eliminated in Q1 were the usual suspects – with Sebastien Buemi once again getting the better of Sebastien Bourdais.
Drivers eliminated in Q1
16. Sebastien Bourdais 1’36.906
17. Nelson Piquet Jnr 1’36.908
18. Robert Kubica 1’36.966
19. Adrian Sutil 1’37.669
20. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’37.672
Mark Webber set the early pace in Q2 while team mate Sebastian Vettel, unusually, hung back in the pits until two minutes before the end of the session.
But when he did set his single lap it was a flyer – 1;35.130, a few hundredths quicker than Webber’s.
They bumped the Brawns back to second – but Jenson Button’s failure to improve on his time from Q1 suggested he had time in hand.
Sebastien Buemi snatched the crucial tenth place by one hundredth of a second from Nick Heidfeld, with Kovalainen and Massa close behind. But video replays suggested he might have been delayed by one of the Red Bulls – in which case the stewards may get involved.
Drivers eliminated in Q2
11. Nick Heidfeld 1’35.975
12. Heikki Kovalainen 1’36.032
13. Felipe Massa 1’36.033
14. Timo Glock 1’36.066
15. Kazuki Nakajima 1’36.193
Brawn and Red Bull were the only team to get both their drivers into Q3. They were joined by Fernando Alonso, Nico Rosberg, Jarno Trulli, Kimi Raikkonen, Hamilton and Buemi.
Rubens Barrichello was fastest from Webber in the opening exchange of laps by 0.04s, with Button a further 0.2s behind. Vettel again hung back in the pits, biding his time and saving tyres.
Webber’s first effort took provisional pole position – Vettel beat him by 0.3s to give Red Bull their first pole position.
But their hopes of a front row lockout were dashed when Alonso pulled a surprise lap out of the bag to grab second – suggesting the Renault has rather more performance in KERS-free form. He was also aided by a revised diffuser added to the car only this morning.
This left Barrichello fourth and Button, pole sitter for the first two races, bumped back to row three. But how much fuel do they have on board? We’ll find out in a few hours.
Update: Fuel weights published – Alonso and the Red Bull drivers very light on fuel: Chinese GP fuel weights and strategies
Top ten drivers in Q3
1. Sebastian Vettel 1’36.184
2. Fernando Alonso 1’36.381
3. Mark Webber 1’36.456
4. Rubens Barrichello 1’36.493
5. Jenson Button 1’36.532
6. Jarno Trulli 1’36.835
7. Nico Rosberg 1’37.397
8. Kimi Raikkonen 1’38.089
9. Lewis Hamilton 1’38.595
10. Sebastien Buemi 1’39.321