Shanghai: Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg claimed the first Formula One pole position of his career on Saturday, topping qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix. The German swept to the top slot by a massive margin, with a best lap of one minute 35.121 seconds compared to Lewis Hamilton's 1:35.626.
McLaren's Hamilton qualified second, but will have to start Sunday's race from seventh due to a five-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox.
Michael Schumacher, the seven-time champion whose 91st and last win came in Shanghai with Ferrari in 2006, qualified third but will be promoted to start beside his Mercedes teammate on the front row due to Hamilton's penalty.
The pole was the first for Mercedes with their own team since the late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio at the 1955 Italian Grand Prix. Mercedes left the sport that same year and, despite considerable success as an engine provider, only returned under their own name in 2010 after they bought the 2009 champions Brawn GP.
"It's a great feeling, fantastic," beamed Rosberg, son of Finland's 1982 world champion Keke, whose pole came at the 111th attempt. His only previous front row appearance was in Malaysia in 2010. "For the whole team it's a special moment."
The biggest surprise of qualifying was the absence of world champion Sebastian Vettel from the final session. He missed out on the top ten by just five hundredths of a second and will start the race from 11th, his worst performance in qualifying since he became champion and lowest grid position since Brazil in 2009, 42 races ago.
Despite the setback, the 24-year-old managed to make light of the situation and said he had been happy with the car's handling, even if it was not quick enough.
"I don't want to blame today's result on any packaging. Mark was faster, full stop," Vettel said, having chosen to use a different exhaust specification to Australian teammate Mark Webber. "I'm number 11. I have also two ones, two firsts, but it's one and one which makes 11," said the driver who dominated last season with 11 wins and the repeated sight of a raised single digit for first place.
Rosberg did only one lap in the final session of qualifying to preserve his tyres, then watched from the pit to see whether anyone could beat his time. His time was a full half-second ahead of Hamilton.
"It was strange before because I was standing there on my own and everybody else is still going out and I can't do anything anymore. Very strange," he said.
The true test for Mercedes will come in the race. The team had also exhibited strong one-lap pace in qualifying in Australia and Malaysia, but in both races the car was well off the pace in the race itself. Mercedes had been trying to remedy their quick tyre degradation since, and Sunday's race will be the test of that work.
Hamilton was attempting to top qualifying for the third straight race to start the season, but the McLarens could not match a Mercedes car which is tailor-made for the China circuit and its very long straight.
"Congratulations to Nico, it's fantastic," said Hamilton, genuinely pleased for a friend who was a teammate in the junior series in 2000. "I am very proud of him. We grew up together, racing together and always dreamed of being in Formula One."
Schumacher, who holds the Formula One record of 68 career poles, also congratulated his compatriot.
"I said 'well done' because that was a phenomenal lap time," said the 43-year-old. "It's a bit of a surprise but there you go. He's known as a good qualifier...I am happy for him."
Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi was an impressive fourth in qualifying, followed by Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus, Jenson Button of McLaren, Mark Webber of Red Bull and Sergio Perez of Sauber.
Fernando Alonso of Ferrari and Romain Grosjean of Lotus rounded out the top 10.
Vettel was well off the pace of Red Bull teammate Webber in the second qualifying session. The Australian is using a revamped exhaust system this weekend, which Vettel had decided to forego as the reduced downforce did not suit his driving style.