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Lewis Hamilton was beaten to pole position for Formula One's 1,000th race by ValtteriBottas.
In a nail-biting session, Bottas saw off the five-time world champion by just 0.023 seconds at the Shanghai International Circuit.
The form guide indicated that Ferrari might be the team to beat here, but after they were off the pace at the last round, Mercedes have returned to their all-conquering best.
Sebastian Vettel was a third of a second down on the Silver Arrows, with team-mate Charles Leclerc fourth. Red Bull's Max Verstappen finished fifth.
"It has been a good weekend so far," said Bottas. "I struggled to get the perfect lap in, but it was good enough."
Hamilton said: "I didn't give up and kept pushing right to the end. Valtteri has been stellar all weekend. I have struggled. There is time left on the table, but I will try and get it back tomorrow."
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Lewis Hamilton has said Sebastian Vettel deserves more respect after moving to defend his championship rival.
Vettel attracted criticism for his collision with Max Verstappen at Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix which leaves Hamilton on the brink of winning his fifth world title.
The Ferrari driver's coming together with Verstappen was his seventh significant error of the campaign, and his 10th in two seasons fighting Hamilton for the championship.
But Hamilton, who will secure the title if he wins in Austin, Texas next Sunday and Vettel fails to finish second, insists the German is owed greater credit.
"I feel the media need to show a little more respect for Sebastian," he wrote in a message posted to his Instagram story on Tuesday.
"You simply cannot imagine how hard it is to do what we do at our level, for any athlete at the top of their game that is.
"It is to be expected that being humans we will make mistakes but it is how we get through them that counts."
While a dominant Hamilton, who will visit the Mercedes factory in Brackley, Northamptonshire on Wednesday, has secured six victories in seven rounds of remarkable racing, Vettel and Ferrari's championship challenge has fallen dramatically off the rails.