(CNN) -- Nico Rosberg has claimed a surprise pole position for Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix, but qualifying positions were once again almost a secondary consideration in a race already overshadowed by ongoing protests in the Gulf kingdom.
The German was more than two-tenths of a second faster than triple world champion Sebastian Vettel, who admitted he held back at the end when he saw how far ahead the Mercedes driver was in Saturday's final session.
"When I got told the gap to P1, it was clear that even with a perfect lap he was unbeatable today, but nevertheless I'm very happy," said the Red Bull star, who won last year's race from pole at the Sakhir circuit.
"We managed to save some tires throughout qualifying and it will be about tire degradation tomorrow, so we'll see what happens."
Rosberg won the second pole of his career, but downplayed his hopes of repeat last season's success of winning from the front of the grid in China.
"For the first time this season everything went perfectly today and that's a great feeling," he said.
"The race tomorrow is a different story. It will be difficult, especially with the rear tires, and we know that other teams were stronger than us on the long runs on Friday. It will be a big challenge to stay ahead, but starting from the front helps."
Fernando Alonso will start third for Ferrari, and the Spaniard is confident of repeating his victory last time out in Shanghai after also deciding to conserve his tires by giving up his final run, with track temperatures rising above 40C and playing havoc with the rubber.
"At the last corner, I saw I was half a tenth to one-tenth slower so we decided to come in and save one lap on those tires -- you never know if you'll have to use it in the race," Alonso said.
He will start the race alongside teammate Felipe Massa after Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton was dropped five places from fourth -- having needed a new gearbox after problems in final practice -- and Red Bull's Mark Webber was demoted from fifth to seventh because of his grid penalty following a collision in the China race.
"I started on the hard (tires), it can be that I gain positions on the first stint because of that," said Massa, who took a different tire strategy to Alonso.
The Force India duo of Paul Di Resta and Adrian Sutil will start fifth and sixth respectively, while Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen -- who was fastest in Friday's practice sessions -- will be eighth.
Hamilton will be alongside 10th-placed former McLaren teammate Jenson Button, who succeeded him as world champion in 2009.
"The best chance to gain some positions will come at the start and then we'll see how it goes," said Hamilton, who won pole in Shanghai. "Tire degradation will be a huge factor so it's going to be a very interesting race."
Several media outlets reported that human rights protesters clashed with Bahrain's security forces into the early hours of Saturday morning.
Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula One Management, told a group of television reporters that the Bahrain government was "stupid" to host the race because it can be used "as a platform for people to use protesting."
"The government here were stupid, in a lot of ways, to put this race on," the 82-year-old said Saturday ahead of the qualifying sessions in response to a question from a BBC reporter
The race was canceled in 2011 after violent protests by factions of the majority Shiite population against Bahrain's Sunni rulers. F1 bosses tried to reschedule it for later that year but backed down in the wake of widespread criticism and a lack of evidence that the situation had stabilized.
Last year's race passed without incident, though there were again protests before it was held.
The Bahrain government insists the race will bring long-term benefits to its people.
"F1 brings significant benefits to everyone in Bahrain, especially economically," it said in a statement Friday. "Bahrain upholds the right to peaceful protest. It is a country made up of many communities with different views on its development.
"This is why it has launched a dialogue between all political groups to address political issues in a manner that will ensure the country develops in a sustainable way. It should be noted that in some cases protests encouraged by extreme opposition groups result in deliberate and targeted violence."