Sebastian Vettel gave Red Bull Racing its first pole position in qualifying at Shanghai, ahead of the resurgent Fernando Alonso.
Mark Webber added to Red Bull's delight with third on the grid, while the hitherto dominant Brawns were back in fourth and fifth, Rubens Barrichello ahead of Jenson Button.
Vettel opted to make only one run in Q2 and Q3, yet topped both sessions, taking a dry weather pole to follow his pole in the rain at Monza for Toro Rosso last year.
Red Bull looked set to sweep the front row until Alonso split them, proving that Renault's rapidly-introduced updates were already paying off.
Webber was pushed back from first to third in the closing seconds, with Barrichello dropping to fourth having held provisional pole following the first Q3 runs.
Jarno Trulli completed the top six for Toyota, followed by morning pace-setter Nico Rosberg's Williams.
Kimi Raikkonen took eighth in his Ferrari, with Lewis Hamilton producing his best qualifying performance of the season to take ninth for McLaren.
Toro Rosso's rookie Sebastien Buemi also enjoyed a breakthrough session, reaching Q3 for the first time and taking 10th.
Timo Glock's disastrous day continued. A new gearbox had been required after his practice failure, giving the Toyota a five-place penalty. Given that he only managed 14th in qualifying, that will translate to a back of the field start for the second time this year.
While Hamilton showed better form and Raikkonen at least maintained his Q3 run, their respective team-mates Heikki Kovalainen and Felipe Massa both failed to reach the top ten, taking 12th and 13th, just 0.001s apart.
Also unable to match their team-mates' progress into Q3 were Williams's Kazuki Nakajima, Toro Rosso's Sebastien Bourdais and Renault's Nelson Piquet, who filled positions 15 to 17.
BMW had another poor afternoon. Nick Heidfeld only just squeezed into Q2 and then took 11th, while his team-mate Robert Kubica had the worst qualifying session of his Formula 1 career, managing only 18th and getting knocked out in Q1 for the first time ever.
Force India remained mired at the tail of the field, 0.7s adrift of the pack. Adrian Sutil out-qualified Giancarlo Fisichella for the first time in 2009, beating the Italian by 0.003s.
Pos Driver Team Q1 Q2 Q3 Laps
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault (B) 1:36.565 1:35.130 1:36.184 11
2. Alonso Renault (B) 1:36.443 1:35.803 1:36.381 21
3. Webber Red Bull-Renault (B) 1:35.751 1:35.173 1:36.466 19
4. Barrichello Brawn-Mercedes (B) 1:35.701 1:35.503 1:36.493 21
5. Button Brawn-Mercedes (B) 1:35.533 1:35.556 1:36.532 19
6. Trulli Toyota (B) 1:36.308 1:35.645 1:36.835 21
7. Rosberg Williams-Toyota (B) 1:35.941 1:35.809 1:37.397 23
8. Raikkonen Ferrari (B) 1:36.137 1:35.856 1:38.089 19
9. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes (B) 1:35.776 1:35.740 1:38.595 17
10. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) 1:36.284 1:35.965 1:39.321 21
11. Heidfeld BMW-Sauber (B) 1:36.525 1:35.975 14
12. Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes (B) 1:36.646 1:36.032 10
13. Massa Ferrari (B) 1:36.178 1:36.033 11
14. Glock Toyota (B) 1:36.364 1:36.066 14
15. Nakajima Williams-Toyota (B) 1:36.673 1:36.193 13
16. Bourdais Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) 1:36.906 10
17. Piquet Renault (B) 1:36.908 10
18. Kubica BMW-Sauber (B) 1:36.966 8
19. Sutil Force India-Mercedes (B) 1:37.669 10
20. Fisichella Force India-Mercedes (B) 1:37.672 10
All Timing Unofficial
Autosport has produced a standalone special magazine to celebrate our 70th birthday. All current print subscribers will receive a copy for free. To order your copy of the 196-page Autosport 70th Anniversary issue, please go to: autosport.com/autosport70th