Hamilton broke the record for most poles by a British driver in Formula One and put himself in position for a third consecutive race victory on Sunday. Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo was about 0.6 seconds off the pace in second place, with teammate Sebastian Vettel qualifying third.
The steady light rain and slippery track raised the prospect of rival teams challenging Mercedes, but Hamilton was well clear of the Red Bulls, although his main competitor — teammate Nico Rosberg — made mistakes on his final two flying laps and qualified fourth.
"It's so slippery out there, trying to find the grip, obviously not making mistakes on your lap, and really putting it together, especially when you have these guys pushing you," Hamilton said. "It was a tough session."
Conditions are expected to be better for Sunday's race, with no rain and cool temperatures in the forecast.
It was the 34th pole of Hamilton's career, moving him into fourth place on the all-time pole list, one ahead of former world champion Jim Clark and Alain Prost. Hamilton had been tied with Clark for the most poles of any British driver in F1 history.
"To be up there amongst the great names, all the greats, I'm very, very proud of that, for sure," he said.
The solid qualifying effort also marked a turnaround following his problems in Friday's practice with the car's suspension, which limited him to only nine laps in the morning and required work on his car Friday night.
"Yesterday was not a good day for me," he said. "It's kind of strange because we made all those changes overnight and then today's been wet so I have no idea if it's (heading) in the right direction."
After his thrilling tire-to-tire duel with Rosberg at the Bahrain GP two weeks ago, Hamilton believed his teammate would offer the strongest challenge in qualifying in Shanghai.
But the German, who claimed pole position in Bahrain and won the season-opening race in Australia, pushed too hard around the final corner on his last flying lap, spinning his car and ruining his last chance to top Hamilton.
Rosberg said he still has hopes of maintaining his slender lead in the driver's championship — he has 61 points to Hamilton's 50.
"I was the quicker one in Bahrain, didn't make it work, but I have the momentum of the pace for race speed and I expect to have that again tomorrow," Rosberg said.
He'll have to get by the Red Bull cars, who will be aiming for their first podium finish in Shanghai since 2011 when Vettel finished second to Hamilton and then-teammate Mark Webber was third.
Ricciardo again got the better of the more accomplished Vettel in qualifying, beating him for the third time in four sessions this season.
Now he's hoping to make up for his disqualification at the season-opening race in Australia, where he earned his first-ever podium by finishing second to Rosberg but was later stripped of the result for breaching F1's new rules on fuel usage.
"If it's dry, I think we can race up the front," he said. "I'll be ducking my head down the straight, like in a go-kart, but we'll hopefully hang on and fight for at least a podium."
Defending Chinese GP champion Fernando Alonso, the fastest in practice on Friday morning, qualified fifth for Ferrari, while teammate Kimi Raikkonen was down in a humble 11th.
Williams qualified two drivers in the top 10 — Felipe Massa in sixth and Valtteri Bottas in seventh — a vast improvement for the team after it struggled in wet conditions in qualifying in Australia and Malaysia.
Force India's Nico Hulkenberg qualified in eighth, followed by Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne and Lotus' Romain Grosjean.
Both McLaren cars were knocked out in the second qualifying session for the first time this year. Jenson Button will start from the 12th spot, while Kevin Magnussen will be back in 15th.
Lotus driver Pastor Maldonado did not start qualifying due to an engine problem that cut short his final practice round.
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