On an afternoon where strategies began to unfold, Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position for the Chinese GP ahead of Kimi Raikkonen.
Fernando Alonso qualified third ahead of Nico Rosberg, Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean while Daniel Ricciardo was an impressive seventh for Toro Rosso.
Meanwhile, Mark Webber had a dismal afternoon as the Aussie, who was sixth at the time, was forced to park his RB9 in Q2 with a "lack of fuel pressure." That mean Webber was not able to contest the final few minutes and ended P14.
The hazy sun was shining down on The Shang track with an unexpectedly high ambient temperature of 27C with the track at 41C. The Ferraris had been fastest in morning practice on the Soft tyre, but with graining making short work of them, the prediction was that they would last only five or six laps into a race once the cars were on full tanks.
Thus the important tyre to save for the race was the more durable Medium, even though the Soft tyre was a second quicker. So Q1 was unusual in that it saw all the top teams come out first on the faster tyre and save their harder rubber for Sunday's race.
The Lotus tem had been hard at work altering Kimi Raikkonen's suspension after morning practice, while Mercedes had worked on Nico Rosberg's car to fix a hydraulic issue.
As the green light came on at the end of the pitlane there was very little action on the track. Even the Marussias and Caterhams passed up the opportunity to have several minutes of camera time as everyone stayed in the garage. It was only with eleven minutes to go of the twenty that the Marussias of Chilton and Bianchi took to the circuit.
Bianchi set the first P1 time of 1:39.025 and impressively, was quicker than both Toro Rosso cars were able to run. However Nico Rosberg's first flying lap was three seconds quicker, a 1:35.959 which was immediately bettered by Lewis Hamilton with a 1:35.793.
Such was the lack of haste to get runs in that with four minutes left on the clock only 12 of the 22 cars had set a time. With two minutes left to run, the positions were: 15.Gutierrez, 16.Bianchi, 17.Ricciardo, 18.Vergne, 19.Chilton, 20.Van der Garde, 21.Pic, 22.Bottas (no time).
Valtteri Bottas had left it late in the Williams but managed to go straight to P15 despite a lurid drift in Turn 1. But then Jean-Eric Vergne managed to leapfrog him into P15 and when Toro Rosso team-mate Daniel Ricciardo jumped up to P11 that pushed Bottas and Gutierrez in P17 and P18 - and with no time left to respond.
So as the session ended, both Toro Rossos were through to Q2 with the placings: 17.Bottas, 18.Gutierrez, 19.Bianchi, 20.Chilton, 21.Pic, 22.Van der Garde
Max Chilton was only 0.5 down on his team-mate and both Marussias had got ahead of the Caterhams.
Sebastian Vettel was out early in the session on a scrubbed set of Soft tyres and set the first P1 time at 1:36.260, Mark Webber slotted into P2 followed by Paul di Resta in P2.
Fernando Alonso reduce P1 to 1:36.186, but all eyes were turned to Mark Webber who was in the process of parking up his Red Bull RB9 with an unspecified fuel problem. His time was good enough for P6 and it was still possible his time would be good enough for Q3 - even though he wouldn't be able to take part.
Kimi Raikkonen improved P1 to 1:35.659 and was then edged out of top spot by Nico Rosberg with a 1:35.537. Lewis Hamilton then showed why Mercedes was keen to bring him to the team by putting in a 1:35.078.
With four minutes of the session still to run the danger positions were: 8.Webber, 9.Hulkenberg, 10.Button, 11.Ricciardo, 12.Sutil, 13.Perez, 14.Vergne, 15.Maldonado, 16.Grosjean (no time).
The cars came back on track, all bar the two Mercedes and Raikkonen. Over the line they came and with times still tumbling, Mark Webber's position slumped down the order. Vergne grabbed P10, Ricciardo managed a stellar P5, Vettel made himself safe in P2, Sutil a not-so-safe P9, Paul Di Resta went faster than his team-mate for P8 while Grosjean's only run netted him P5.
Sergio Perez could only manage P11, Alonso made himself supersafe by taking P2, Button eased into P6 and Massa took P4.
So out went: 11.Di Resta, 12.Perez, 13.Sutil, 14.Webber, 15.Maldonado, 16.Vergne. Button was relieved to be told over team radio that he was through to Q3 and when told that a Toro Rosso was through exclaimed, "Ricciardo - wow!"
It was a hugely tactical Q3 with possibly the least action and the fewest laps run than any previous Q3. Sebastian Vettel was out straight away on a set of scrubbed Softs and set two timed sectors before disappearing back into the pits.
Then there was an embarrassing wait. With five minutes left, nobody had set a time; four minutes, nobody, three minutes nobody - it was only then that nine of the cars stirred, while Nico Hulkenberg remained in the garage throughout.
Finally the cars emerged from the pits in a gaggle led by Kimi Raikkonen. Despite their short life expectancy both Lotus cars, both Ferraris and both Mercedes were on Soft tyres, Vettel and Button chose the Mediums.
Kimi Raikkonen set the first sub-1:35 lap to take provisional pole at 1:34.761, Nico Rosberg could only manage P2. Lewis Hamilton put in a perfect lap to claim P1 with a 1:34.484.
Only Alonso looked capable of beating that but Fernando could only manage P3, qualifying in front of Felipe Massa for the first time this year, the Brazilian slotting in the other side of Nico Rosberg in P5. Daniel Ricciardo was the sixth man over the line and took P6 which was taken off him by Roman Grosjean.
Sebastian Vettel went out on mediums but didn't set a time - Button, who followed him, set a very leisurely 2:05 to take P8. Vettel would slot in behind in P9 and the lack-of-effort Hulkenberg P10.
It was Lewis's first Mercedes pole - the first Mercedes pole for a Brit since Sterling Moss in 1955 - and although he claimed to be "ecstatic" in the qualifying press conference, he seemed remarkably low-key for a state of ecstacy. It was maybe the effect of sitting next to Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen was in P2 but could only muster that "second is not too bad."
In the race tomorrow, the prediction is for two-stops for some and three-stops for others, but with Vettel and Button leading the mid-grid on Medium tyres, the first ten laps of the race - and where the front-runners come out - will be critical.
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m34.484
2. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m34.761
3. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m34.788
4. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m34.861
5. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m34.933
6. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m35.364
7. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m35.998
8. Jenson Button McLaren 2m05.673
9. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull no time
10. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber no time
11. Paul di Resta Force Indi 1m36.287
12. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m36.314
13. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m36.405
14. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m36.679
15. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m37.139
16. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m37.199
17. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m37.769
18. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m37.990
19. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m38.780
20. Max Chilton Marussia 1m39.537
21. Charles Pic Caterham 1m39.614
22. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m39.660