Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg grabbed the first pole position of his Formula One career, ahead of Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix, beating McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and team mate Michael Schumacher in the process. Rosberg, who clocked 1:35.121, finished half a second ahead of Hamilton to give Mercedes its first pole since the 1955 Italian Grand Prix with Juan Manuel Fangio.

Hamilton clocked 1:35.626 but will be forced to start from seventh on the grid, after being penalised for changing his gearbox. This, in effect, means Mercedes also has its first one-two qualifying start of the year.

Meanwhile, this is Rosberg's first pole in 110 races and the 26 year old did it with ease and a set of tyres to spare; his only other previous front row appearance was in Malaysia in 2010.

"It's a great feeling, fantastic. For the whole team it's a special moment," Reuters quoted Rosberg as saying.

"Congratulations to Nico, it's fantastic. I am very proud of him. We grew up together, racing together and always dreamed of being in Formula One," said Hamilton, a team mate of Rosberg in the junior categories in the 2000s.

"I said 'well done' because that was a phenomenal lap time. It's a bit of a surprise but there you go. He's known as a good qualifier...I am happy for him," said Rosberg's team mate, Schumacher - a seven-time former World Champion.

Further down the grid, Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi was fourth fastest, ahead of Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren's Jenson Button and Red Bull's Mark Webber. Kobayashi's team mate Sergio Perez and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso (who finished first and second at the previous race of the season, in Malaysia) and Lotus' Romain Grosjean completed the top 10.

By far the biggest surprise of the session was the poor performance from two-time reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel. The Red Bull driver failed to make even the third qualifying stage, with a lacklustre time of 1:36.031 to finish 11th.

Free Practice 3

Meanwhile, in the race weekend's final Free Practice session (held just before the qualifying session) Hamilton finished with Button in second and Rosberg in third.

Schumacher had set the fastest time in the second Free Practice session, finishing in front of Hamilton and Vettel, while several drivers suffered tyre lock-ups on the bumpy circuit and Timo Glock drove straight off the track and into the barriers.

Interestingly, the top three spots in all the practice sessions and the qualifying itself were occupied by the McLaren and Mercedes drivers, except for Vettel, who came third in the second session.

Red Bull have been stronger on race days than in qualifying this season, while Mercedes have gone backwards on Sundays. Finally, with Hamilton trying to progress from a lower grid position for McLaren, the race promises to be interesting.

Starting grid for Sunday (Qualifying times in brackets)

1. Nico Rosberg (Germany) - Mercedes (1:35.121)

2. Michael Schumacher (Germany) - Mercedes (1:35.691)

3. Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) - Sauber - Ferrari (1:35.784)

4. Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) - Lotus-Renault (1:35.898)

5. Jenson Button (Britain) - McLaren (1:36.191)

6. Mark Webber (Australia) - RedBull-Renault (1:36.290)

7. Lewis Hamilton (Britain) - McLaren (1:35.626)

8. Sergio Perez (Mexico) - Sauber - Ferrari (1:36.524)

9. Fernando Alonso (Spain) - Ferrari (1:36.622)

10. Romain Grosjean (France) - Lotus - Renault (---)

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Mercedes Formula One driver Schumacher drives during the qualifying session of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at Shanghai circuitReuters
Red Bull Formula One driver Vettel enters the pit lane during the qualifying session of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at Shanghai circuitReuters
Ferrari Formula One driver Massa drives during the qualifying session of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at Shanghai circuitReuters
McLaren Formula One driver Hamilton drives during the qualifying session of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at Shanghai circuitReuters
McLaren Formula One driver Hamilton and Mercedes' Schumacher drive in the pit lane after the qualifying session of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at Shanghai circuitReuters
Mercedes Formula One driver Rosberg drives during the qualifying session of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at Shanghai circuitReuters
Mercedes Formula One driver Rosberg, McLaren's Hamilton and Mercedes'Schumacher pose after the qualifying session of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at Shanghai circuitReuters