Mercedes will bookend the Shanghai grid on Sunday after Nico Rosberg secured pole in qualifying, while Lewis Hamilton suffered an engine failure. Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo surprisingly claimed second on the grid.
Nico Rosberg went half a second quicker than the rest of the field in qualifying in China on Saturday, securing a start from the front of the grid in Sunday's race. Rosberg was always set to have an advantage over Hamilton, who was facing a five-place grid penalty for a change of gearbox after the last race in Bahrain. But early in Saturday's session, Hamilton suffered a power unit failure, meaning he was unable to set a time at all. Hamilton will start 22nd and last on Sunday.
Hamilton had to watch qualifying from the garage, as his team began to switch power units in his car
"To get the lap done and put it on pole, I'm happy with that - but not ecstatic because Lewis had bad luck and broke down. That fight didn't happen, but anyway I'm pleased," Rosberg said, having secured his 23rd career pole position.
The winner of the first two races of this season, and the last three of 2015, Rosberg has the chance to build on his early championship lead on Sunday. But Hamilton stayed upbeat, pointing out that the modern, wide Shanghai circuit is more conducive to overtaking than most on the F1 calendar.
"I'm sure the guys [in the team] are as gutted as I am," Hamilton said. "But it isn't over until it's over. You can overtake here. The two Ferraris are quick so that puts a podium out of the way - unless something happens to them. But I will give it everything I've got."
Rosberg will even be able to run an alternate strategy to the other front-runners, having successfully reached the final segment of qualifying on a harder compound of tires. Unlike the other top qualifiers, who needed the fastest compound to reach the top-eight shootout, Rosberg will start on that rubber, further cementing his status as favorite.
Ricciardo pinches second for Red Bull
For most of the session, Ferrari again appeared to be Mercedes' principal rival at the front. But at the last, Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo found a lap less than a tenth of a second quicker than that of Kimi Räikkönen - bagging a front-row spot on the grid.
"Second is pretty awesome," Ricciardo said. "We didn't expect this!"
Qualifying started in tricky wet conditions, German rookie Pascal Wehrlein was among those to come unstuck
Red Bull, whose car remains a rival to Mercedes in terms of cornering speed, also seems to be enjoying a modicum of improvement from engine supplier Renault - their weak link in recent years.
Räikkönen will start third, sharing the second row of the grid with his teammate Sebastian Vettel, who said that the Prancing Horses would still be shooting for podium finishes on Sunday.
"I think we can be quicker than the Red Bull," Vettel said. "Tomorrow our target is to get forward from where we are now."
Saturday's session started in damp conditions and was halted twice - leading to plenty of cars qualifying out of position, besides Hamilton. The rejuvenated McLarens of Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso will start 11th and 12th, although both appeared to have the pace for higher slots. Both Haas cars will also be mired in the lower midfield, after Romain Grosjean's sixth- and fifth-place finishes in the team's first two races.