Having spent over half the session slowest of all due to an early mistake, Lewis Hamilton fought back to top the timesheets at the Shang on Friday.
While team-mate Nico Rosberg had the better of the early running, comfortably a second quicker than his nearest challenges, it was Hamilton who emerged victorious after a slow start.
The Brit was one of the last out for a flying lap and although up on Rosberg through the first two sectors had a lock up and ran off the track at Turn 14.
He headed back into the pits with the team revealing that "tweaks being discussed" as Hamilton reported that he felt the car was bottoming out a lot on track.
After a stint in the pits he was back out on track, once again up through the second sector. This time he held it together to cross the line with a 1:39.033. That put him 0.541s up on Rosberg.
But despite being well up on their rivals, the Mercedes drivers also found the going tough as both Hamilton and Rosberg had several off-track excursions.
With the track temperature hovering in the early 30'Cs, a marked difference to the high 50s experienced at the previous race in Malaysia, Sebastian Vettel finished a distant third, 1.521s off the pace, while Kimi Raikkonen was fourth.
A late dash saw Felipe Nasr claim fifth place ahead of Daniel Ricciardo. The duo were the last two drivers to get within two seconds of the P1 pace such was Mercedes' advantage.
Daniil Kvyat was seventh ahead of Carlos Sainz, Valtteri Bottas and Pastor Maldonado.
Meanwhile Jolyon Palmer made his debut at a track weekend as he ran in place of Romain Grosjean. He finished P14, 2.9s down.
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:39.033 21 laps
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:39.574 0.541 21 laps
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1:40.157 1.124 18 laps
4 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1:40.661 1.628 27 laps
5 Felipe Nasr Sauber 1:41.012 1.979 18 laps
6 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1:41.029 1.996 21 laps
7 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull 1:41.097 2.064 24 laps
8 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 1:41.112 2.079 23 laps
9 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:41.303 2.270 23 laps
10 Felipe Massa Williams 1:41.304 2.271 17 laps
11 Pastor Maldonado Lotus 1:41.335 2.302 23 laps
12 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso 1:41.575 2.542 28 laps
13 Jenson Button McLaren 1:41.845 2.812 19 laps
14 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 1:41.918 2.885 24 laps
15 Jolyon Palmer Lotus 1:41.967 2.934 25 laps
16 Sergio Perez Force India 1:42.141 3.108 22 laps
17 Fernando Alonso McLaren 1:42.161 3.128 20 laps
18 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:42.184 3.151 19 laps
19 Will Stevens Manor 1:45.379 6.346 18 laps
20 Roberto Merhi Manor 1:46.443 7.410 20 laps