The German driver set a new lap record for Ferrari as he topped qualifying ahead of Sunday's Shanghai showpiece. Defending world champion Lewis Hamilton struggled into fourth place.
Sebastian Vettel's blistering start to the Formula One season continued as he sealed pole and set a new lap record of 1 minute 31.095 seconds in qualifying for Sunday's race. It was a positive day all round for Ferrari, with teammate Kimi Raikkonen taking second spot as rivals Mercedes struggled.
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"The car was really amazing, it just kept getting better. So I'm really happy," Vettel told reporters. "I was a bit beaten up, but knew that if I could get a tidy lap and have a little bit of margin, I can push it. It was really good."
Ferrari achieved back-to-back front row lockouts for the first time in 12 years, putting the team in good stead to continue its great start to the season. Vettel has a 17-point lead over his main rival, the Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, after the opening two races of the season. The British driver admitted it would be tough to stop Ferrari winning a third straight event.
"We started the weekend positively in practice, but the car went away from us today," he said. "The pace just wasn't there. It's not going to be easy to beat Kimi and Sebastian tomorrow, they're the quickest on the straights too, so overtaking will be tough. We start fourth and I'm going to have to fight from there."
Despite a lacklustre start to the season, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff rejected the notion that his team's dominance was ending after four straight world titles.
"We've shown in the past that we have recovered from difficult periods, and I have actually started to appreciate the difficult days because they make us progress and understand our car better," he explained. "The funny thing about being outperformed on Saturday is that you are the lion that is just waiting to jump on its prey."
Despite the defiant stance, Mercedes will know a huge performance from Hamilton will be required if Vettel is to be caught on Sunday. If the German wins again, it will be a long way back in the title race.
The grid for the Chinese Grand Prix:
ed/jh (AFP, Reuters)