Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel set a scintillating lap to take his third pole position in three races in 2011 at the Chinese Grand Prix.
Jenson Button was second, 0.715 seconds behind the championship leader, with McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton third.
Nico Rosberg took fourth place on the grid for Mercedes, while Force India's Paul di Resta will start eighth.
After electrical problems in practice, Red Bull's Mark Webber was eliminated in qualifying and will start 18th.
For the third race running, McLaren were the only team who could get close to champions Red Bull.
McLaren kept faith with their upgrades - which included a refined exhaust system, floor and front wing - for qualifying despite niggling problems during Friday practice.
Button set an early benchmark in the chase for pole but Vettel responded with a blistering lap of one minute 33.706 to better the 2009 champion by 0.715secs.
The pair watched as none of the other seven cars came close to matching their times and neither Vettel nor Button emerged again as they chose to preserve their tyres for the race.
"I thought we could fight for pole, but the pace of Sebastian in Q3 was phenomenal," said Button. "This is my best grid slot of the year and from where we were on Friday we've improved the car a lot.
"We should be happy with what we've achieved. Our best chance of winning the race is to challenge Seb into Turn One."
Vettel said: "The gap surprised us as well. Obviously we did it again but I try to remind myself and the team that every time is tough. It wasn't straightforward, in Q2 I had a bit of a mistake but in Q3 we improved.
"It all starts from zero again on Sunday. All it is is eight metres (in front of Button). We are as happy as we can be with the car, we had good long runs on Friday so have reason to feel good."
Hamilton finished 0.747secs off Vettel's leading time and said he was "much happier with the car," despite looking rather despondent when he faced the media after qualifying.
"I'm quite happy," he said. "To have our team up there still and to have one of the Red Bulls out of the fight will give us an advantage. Jenson did a great job. I'm hoping my extra set of tyres will give me the edge in the race.
"Compared to the last strategy it will be a massive difference. It's always good to have a fresh set of tyres. They are saying it is a two stop race but it's potentially three.
"It will be a serious battle into Turn One. Jenson and I want to finish ahead of the Red Bulls so we are going to push hard."
The 2008 champion lines up on the second row in Shanghai alongside Nico Rosberg in an improving Mercedes.
Ferrari were unable to find more pace, despite senior figures returning to their headquarters in Maranello to check on the latest car developments before flying on to Shanghai, with both drivers more than a second behind Vettel.
The Italian marque occupy the third row as Fernando Alonso, who had braced himself of a "difficult weekend", narrowly beat Felipe Massa to fifth spot.
A thrilling qualifying session also saw some of the less experienced drivers in the field move up the grid, with Di Resta marking his 25th birthday by claiming eighth.
The Scottish rookie is sandwiched between the Toro Rossos of Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi, with Renault's Vitaly Petrov taking 10th place despite not running in the final session.
Renault were hit by more reliability problems when the Russian caused a red flag in the second phase.
Petrov had set the fourth fastest time before his Renault lost power and he ground to a halt on the track.
"After the second corner something was wrong with the car," explained Petrov, who claimed his first podium with third in Australia.
"It was not working and we need to analyse what happened. I'm disappointed as we had improved quite a lot."
Formula 1's rulebook meant Petrov could not re-start qualifying even if Renault could get his car up-and-running and he starts the race in 10th.
The red flag proved to be more than a nuisance for Mercedes, Sauber, Williams and Petrov's Renault team-mate Nick Heidfeld, who were all vying to make it into the top 10, especially as the delay meant their tyres lost precious heat.
With just two minutes left to run after the re-start there was a desperate scramble for position as the drivers tried to squeeze into the top-10 shoot-out.
Michael Schumacher and Heidfeld joined the Williams and Sauber drivers in dropping out but Di Resta out-qualified his team-mate Adrian Sutil to make it through to the final stage of qualifying for the first time.
A difficult weekend for Webber got worse when the Australian dropped out in the first phase of qualifying.
Problems with his Kers power-boost device in final practice and contributing electrical issues meant that his mechanics were furiously working on his car until just before he was due to go out.
A decision to stay on the hard tyres on a cool Shanghai track proved costly as he struggled for pace and was knocked out of qualifying by Pastor Maldonado's Williams, who demoted Webber to 18th.
"My first run was a second shy of where I needed to be so we were on the bubble," explained Webber.
"We decided to go for another run on the prime [hard] tyres and have a few laps at it but we didn't get out quick enough so we only had one timed lap, and on top of that the tyres weren't up to temperature.
"We all started to panic a bit at the end and we snookered ourselves really. I don't know the last time a Red Bull was out in Q1 but it's been a long time.
"We just need to put some Saturdays and Sundays together. There are flashes there of what we can do, it's just pulling it all together."
BBC F1 analyst David Coulthard added: "If he had put the soft tyre on his Red Bull, there would have been an extra second available to him and he'd have gone through.
"Vettel has now out-qualified Webber at the last eight grands prix, including last year. You know what they say, if Webber didn't have bad luck then he'd have no luck at all."
Webber joined Team Lotus, Virgin and Hispania drivers who exited qualified in that order to fill the back rows of the grid.
Sitting pretty at the other end of the grid, Vettel, who won the Chinese Grand Prix in 2009, is now aiming to become the first man to win around the Shanghai circuit more than once.