SHANGHAI - Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher gave Mercedes the front row for the Chinese Grand Prix on Saturday as the German team showed it has enough speed to challenge for victories in Formula One this season.
Rosberg secured the first pole position of his career with a blistering lap in the final qualifying session, while Schumacher will start from second after earning his first spot on the front row since his comeback in 2010.
Rosberg was a full half-second ahead of McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, who was given a five-place grid penalty this week for having to change his gearbox and will start Sunday's race from seventh. That puts Schumacher right behind his teammate, as the German seven-time Formula One champion followed up his quick practice times by finishing third in the qualifying session.
Rosberg completed just one lap in the third session and then returned to the pits, watching as rival after rival failed to come close to his time of 1 minute, 35.121 seconds.
"It was strange beforehand because I was standing there on my own and everybody else was still going round and I can't do anything anymore," he said. "And then slowly but surely, I saw the sector times and I saw that it was definitely going to be enough, so fantastic."
It was a disappointing day for defending world champion Sebastian Vettel, however, as the Red Bull driver failed to even make it into the final qualifying session and will start from 11th place.
Schumacher is still looking for his first podium finish since returning to the sport in 2010, and Mercedes looks to have finally produced a car that can get him there. Even the German great, though, was surprised at how fast Rosberg was.
"For all of us, to see the gap that big is a bit of a surprise, but there you go," Schumacher said. "He's known as a good qualifier and no reason to be unhappy."
The 26-year-old Rosberg captured his first pole in his 110th race in F1. He's only had five podium finishes in his entire career.
The true test for Mercedes, however, will come on Sunday. The team has been quick in qualifying this year, but then failed to keep up with the other teams in both races. Schumacher was third in qualifying in Malaysia, but then finished 10th in the race.
Mercedes has been trying to remedy its quick tire degradation since then, and hopes to find out on Sunday whether the work has been successful.
"In qualifying we're very, very strong right now," Rosberg said. "In the race we're still not quite as strong and not where we want to be yet. But also there, we're learning a lot and progressing fast. The thing is we can't make huge jumps in a couple of weeks, it's going to take a bit more time, but we're getting there."
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 perfectly suited for the China circuit and its very long straight.
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.
Even though Hamilton will have to work his way up through the field, the Briton is not discounting his team's chances on Sunday after a strong start to the season. Button captured the season-opening Australian GP and Hamilton has two third-place finishes.
"I've set my car up to be at its strongest in the race," Hamilton said. "So, although Jenson and I are a little bit further back than we'd like, and we've got a bit of work to do, we can still make it. There's a good group of drivers ahead of us on the grid, but we're right with them in terms of race pace."
Red Bull may need to wait a bit longer for its first win of the season. After dominating the 2011 season, the team has had a relatively lacklustre start to 2012, with just one podium finish — Vettel's second place in Melbourne.
The German, who had won three consecutive poles in Shanghai, was well off the pace of teammate Webber in the second qualifying session Saturday. 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.
It's the first time Vettel won't start in the top 10 on the grid since Brazil 2009.
"There was no problem with the car, but I couldn't get the final few tenths," he said. "We weren't fast enough and we have to accept it."
Sauber's good run continued as both Kobayashi and Perez recorded their best results in F1 qualifying.
"For quite a while, we have kept saying we need to improve our qualifying performance, and I think this was a clear improvement today," said Kobayashi, whose previous best result was eighth at last year's British GP.
"This grid position obviously means a lot of chances. However, I am not a dreamer and the target remains the same: score as many points as you can."
The 22-year-old Perez is coming off a surprising second-place finish in Malaysia. The Mexican driver had expected to do better in the final qualifying session after clocking some fast times earlier in the day.
"It is obviously a good qualifying result for our team," he said. "Personally I must admit I even hoped for more than (eighth)."