Mark Webber won a close battle with Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso to claim pole for Sunday's British Grand Prix.
It is only the second time in nine races this season that Vettel has been beaten to pole and Alonso was closer than Ferrari were expected to be here.
But McLaren struggled, with Jenson Button qualifying fifth for his home race and Lewis Hamilton only 10th.
Scot Paul di Resta was impressive in taking sixth for Force India.
The 26-year-old has now out-qualified his experienced team-mate Adrian Sutil for the seventh time in nine races.
But the focus ahead of Sunday's race will be on the effect of Formula 1's latest rule change on the leading contenders, with Ferrari appearing to benefit and McLaren lose out the most from a decision to ban a technology called off-throttle blowing of the diffuser.
This is where teams blow exhaust gases over the rear of their car's floor even when the driver is off the accelerator, to smooth airflow and increase downforce.
Red Bull were the pioneers of the technology and feel they have been put at a disadvantage following a series of rows on the subject this weekend.
The team have won the last two British Grands Prix and were expected to dominate on a track that on paper plays to the strengths of their car.
But Alonso was only 0.117 seconds slower than Webber's pole time - a much smaller margin that might have been expected on the evidence of the season so far.
Team-mate Felipe Massa separated the Spaniard from Button.
Webber, who won here last year, loves Silverstone and was hoping that the rule change would play into his hands.
"Mark has been out-qualified time and time again by Vettel and this is a big fillip for him," said veteran commentator Murray Walker on BBC One.
Webber said he was "very happy", and added that the team had handled the controversy over the rules "pretty well".
"Seb and I have just to concentrate on the driving," he said. "It is not new for our team, every year we have a new thing to talk about. Let's hope everyone can find someone common ground.
"It's very boring for the fans, they cannot understand 0.1% of what's going on. Let's get on with the racing and keep the rules as simple as we can."
Webber's pole time came on his first flying lap - and rain prevented anyone having a second shot at beating him.
"It's a shame we couldn't get the second lap," Vettel said. "I would have loved to challenge Mark again, but I think he did a good lap.
"It's a good result for the team after all the talk going into qualifying. It shows we are still on top of our game."
Alonso said: "I'm very happy. It is the best qualifying in terms of gap to pole position this year - we have been one sec to 0.7secs in the last couple of races.
"Being here in Silverstone which is not a track that should suit us with all the fast corners, it is a good result for us.
"The new parts we brought here are working well. Hopefully in the race we can still perform well being close to these guys and be on the podium."
McLaren, by contrast, appeared to be at sea from the moment the teams ran on a dry track for the first time on Saturday morning.
But home favourite Hamilton said he remained confident of moving up from his 10th place on the grid.
"I've probably got a couple of people in front who I might be quicker than. Overtaking here is difficult but we could still have an exciting race. It hasn't been a great weekend but I'm happy at the support we have here," he said.
Another disappointed man will be Michael Schumacher, down in 13th while Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg was ninth.
The seven-time world champion was eight places and 0.361secs behind Rosberg in the second qualifying session, which defines which drivers get into the top 10 shoot-out.
Mixed conditions in the first part of qualifying, which was disrupted by a rain shower, helped Heikki Kovalainen get the Lotus team into the second part of the qualifying for only the second time this season.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo, making his F1 debut for the Hispania team, was slowest of all, 0.6secs behind team-mate Vitantonio Liuzzi.
But the Red Bull protégé was comfortably within 107% of the fastest time in the first session, which was set by Webber, so qualified for his first grand prix.