Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel seized his second pole position in a row while Formula One leader Jenson Button could qualify only sixth for his home British Grand Prix on Saturday.
Button's team mate and closest title rival Rubens Barrichello, whose last win was with Ferrari in 2004, took second place on the starting grid for Brawn GP with Australian Mark Webber third for Red Bull.
The pole, in a time of one minute 19.509 seconds, was the fourth of Vettel's Formula One career and third of the season. Barrichello lapped in 1:19.856 with the fuel loads yet to be revealed.
"I think we have done a step forward," said the 21-year-old German, whose victory in China makes him the only driver other than Button to have won a race this year.
The Briton has a 26 point lead over Brazilian Barrichello, and is 32 ahead of Vettel, with 10 races remaining.
Button struggled for a grip after failing to get the car balanced to his taste and was gloomy about his chances: "I think it is almost impossible (to win)," he said. "I haven't had the pace all weekend.
"I was hoping for something a bit better, being sixth is a lot worse than I thought it would be. So it's going to be a difficult race tomorrow."
Webber slammed Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, blaming the Finn for keeping him off the front row: "I had a big distraction from Kimi. He was totally asleep on the back straight," said the Australian.
"He sat on the racing line and basically didn't care."
World champion Lewis Hamilton, who put in one of the all-time great performances in the wet to win for McLaren last year, suffered the worst qualifying performance of his Formula One career in 19th place.
Hamilton was unable to escape from the bottom group when Force India's Adrian Sutil crashed heavily into the tyre wall at Abbey and the first session was red-flagged with 24 seconds remaining.
"I did the best I could. I was pushing as hard as I could. We were just dead slow," said Hamilton, who thanked the fans for their support.
"The race is over but we'll keep fighting and hopefully put on a good show for the fans," he said.
Sutil went to the medical centre for checks after clambering from his badly damaged car, but was given the all-clear for Sunday. The German blamed brake failure for the accident.
Italian Jarno Trulli qualified fourth for Toyota, with Japan's Kazuki Nakajima registering a career-best grid position with fifth for Williams.
Hamilton's team mate Heikki Kovalainen, who was on pole last year, also failed to shine in the uncompetitive McLaren and qualified 13th.
Button had scraped through to the third and final 10 minute qualifying session with the eighth best time, more than half a second slower than Vettel.