Sebastian Vettel claimed his second consecutive pole as Red Bull remained the team to beat at Silverstone
But Brawn's Rubens Barrichello managed to split the Red Bulls on the grid, for a disappointing final qualifying run saw Mark Webber slip from provisional pole to third place.
Championship leader Jenson Button was only sixth, behind Toyota's Jarno Trulli and Williams's Kazuki Nakajima.
Reigning champion and last year's Silverstone winner Lewis Hamilton endured the worst qualifying session of his Formula 1 career, ending up 19th on the grid after his last Q1 run was halted by red flags for a massive accident involving Adrian Sutil.
The Force India driver was unhurt, but his incident at Abbey brought the first qualifying segment to an early end and caused a long delay to the rest of the session.
Webber looked a strong favourite for pole after he took the top spot early in Q3 with nearly a half second margin over his rivals.
But first Barrichello, then Vettel jumped ahead on their next runs, whereas Webber failed to improve on his first flying lap next time around and then gained just a few fractions on his final attempt, leaving him third behind his team-mate and former Silverstone winner Barrichello.
Trulli was half a second adrift of pole in fourth, with Nakajima - who had been quickest in Q1 - producing his best ever F1 qualifying performance to push Button back to sixth. The points leader was never a factor in the pole battle on home ground.
Morning pace-setter Nico Rosberg was seventh in the second Williams, ahead of Toyota's Timo Glock.
Ninth-placed Kimi Raikkonen was the sole Ferrari in the top ten, as Massa's Friday pessimism proved well-founded when a slow final sector on his last Q2 run left him 11th, behind Fernando Alonso (Renault).
BMW Sauber's poor weekend continued, although Robert Kubica did well to take 12th - three places ahead of team-mate Nick Heidfeld - considering his litany of mechanical problems in practice.
Heikki Kovalainen - who ultimately took 13th on the grid - and both Ferraris had only just made it out of the bottom five in Q1 when Sutil had a high-speed impact with the barriers at the Abbey chicane.
With only 24 seconds left on the clock, the session was effectively over, which was a disaster for Hamilton as he was mid-way through what would have been his last flying lap. The world champion has now been eliminated in Q1 for three straight grands prix.
The crash also ended Force India's hopes of reaching Q2, which Sutil might have managed had he completed the lap. The German and Hamilton were joined at the back by the two Toro Rossos and Giancarlo Fisichella in the second Force India.
Pos Driver Team Q1 Q2 Q3 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault (B) 1:18.685 1:18.119 1:19.509 2. Barrichello Brawn-Mercedes (B) 1:19.325 1:18.335 1:19.856 3. Webber Red Bull-Renault (B) 1:18.674 1:18.209 1:19.868 4. Trulli Toyota (B) 1:18.886 1:18.240 1:20.091 5. Nakajima Williams-Toyota (B) 1:18.530 1:18.575 1:20.216 6. Button Brawn-Mercedes (B) 1:18.957 1:18.663 1:20.289 7. Rosberg Williams-Toyota (B) 1:19.228 1:18.591 1:20.361 8. Glock Toyota (B) 1:19.198 1:18.791 1:20.490 9. Raikkonen Ferrari (B) 1:19.010 1:18.566 1:20.715 10. Alonso Renault (B) 1:19.167 1:18.761 1:20.741 11. Massa Ferrari (B) 1:19.148 1:18.927 12. Kubica BMW-Sauber (B) 1:19.730 1:19.308 13. Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes (B) 1:19.732 1:19.353 14. Piquet Renault (B) 1:19.555 1:19.392 15. Heidfeld BMW-Sauber (B) 1:19.559 1:19.448 16. Fisichella Force India-Mercedes (B) 1:19.802 17. Bourdais Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) 1:19.898 18. Sutil Force India-Mercedes (B) 1:19.909 19. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes (B) 1:19.917 20. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) 1:20.236 All Timing Unofficial
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