SHANGHAI – Ferrari made Formula One rivals sit up and take notice after an ominous show of speed in qualifying for Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix. World championship leader Sebastian Vettel took pole position with a lap more than half a second faster than that of Valtteri Bottas, the fastest of the two Mercedes drivers in third place. The German's best time of one minute, 31.095 seconds – a Shanghai circuit record – turned up the heat on a chilly afternoon with Finnish team mate Kimi Raikkonen joining him on the front row.
"We thought coming into today that we would be fighting for the pole position," said Bottas, whose reigning champion team mate Lewis Hamilton qualified fourth after aborting his final flying lap. "But it was definitely out of reach today, there was nothing in the lap that we could have gained that much."
"I don't know if we can challenge, we're half a second behind today," added Hamilton. "We were quicker in the race in the last race (Bahrain) but they (Ferrari) were able to hold on. They will probably do the same tomorrow."
Dominant isn't a word that has been used to describe Ferrari since they chalked up five straight drivers' titles and six consecutive constructors' crowns with Michael Schumacher, but they were imperious on Saturday. The front row lockout was their second in a row after Vettel beat Raikkonen to pole last weekend in Bahrain.
"Ferrari were just way too quick," said Red Bull's Max Verstappen, who was fifth fastest but a hefty 0.701 seconds off Vettel's pace. "Somehow they've found a turbo button on the straight because they are really quick and still in the corners they are reasonably quick."
Verstappen's Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo added, "Ferrari has had really good pace all weekend and I can't say honestly now that we're going to have their pace tomorrow, but Mercedes definitely look within reach."
Ferrari's speed had already stunned rivals after Friday's opening day of practice pointed to a close battle, even if Hamilton was top of the timesheets. With temperatures plunging on Saturday, the scarlet cars seemed to come into their own.
Vettel, who holds a 17-point lead over Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton after winning in Australia and Bahrain, is looking good for a hat-trick. No driver has ever won the season's first three races without being crowned champion that year, and the last Ferrari driver to do it was Schumacher in 2004 when he was at the peak of his powers and won the opening five.
Warmer temperatures are predicted for Sunday and Mercedes, who struggled to get the tyres in the right temperature window, hoped that could help them in the race.
"The funny bit of being outperformed on Saturday is that you are the lion that's just waiting to jump on the prey," commented Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff. (Editing by Alan Baldwin)