Dropping KERS for China was intended to boost reliability, but it also hurt Ferrrari's already-disappointing pace. Raikkonen at least made it into Q3 and took eighth, with Massa only 13th on the grid.
But the Brazilian was faster in the wet race, making good progress on a heavy fuel load early on and rising to third before an electrical failure during the second safety car period.
Raikkonen struggled with a lack of grip all afternoon and steadily lost ground from an early fifth to finish 10th, making this Ferrari's worst start to a season since 1981.
New parts helped the optimistic Hamilton and Kovalainen to first and fourth in opening practice, and then helped Hamilton to make his first appearance in Q3 this year. He took ninth, with Kovalainen 12th.
Both made good progress in the race on one-stop strategies. Kovalainen put his early season errors behind him with a sensible run to fifth, while a litany of quick spins and grassy excursions - not helped by high tyre wear - repeatedly lost Hamilton places (forcing him to overtake Raikkonen no fewer than three times!), although he still came home sixth.
Kubica tried KERS on Friday but quickly dropped it for Saturday, when things got even worse. A slight error and a pure lack of pace left him 18th in qualifying - by far his worst result since graduating to F1. Heidfeld fared better but was only 11th.
Having started from the pitlane on a wet set-up and heavy fuel, Kubica was starting to gain ground when he slammed into Trulli's slow car. Despite mounting the Toyota, the BMW was able to continue with a new nose, although this later worked loose, leaving Kubica 13th.
Heidfeld tangled with Glock early on and spun down the order, but managed to get back into the points before a stay wheel from Sutil's crash damaged his BMW and saw him struggle home 12th.
A new diffuser was flown out for Alonso in time for Saturday, although a fitting problem meant he barely did any practice mileage with it. Despite this - and aided by a low fuel load - he flew to second on the grid.
Unfortunately the long safety car at the start ruined Alonso's aggressive strategy, and he dropped to last when Renault decided to pit him just before the green. He picked up pace as the race went on and could have appeared in the top six had he not spun on lap 37, leaving him ninth.
Without the new parts on his car, Piquet took his habitual 17th place in qualifying, then twice smashed his front wing after spins in the race. He finished 16th.
Toyota fell back a little in China, with Trulli only sixth on the grid and Glock a lowly 19th - having suffered a gearbox failure and consequently picked up a penalty in practice. That also cost him track time, which didn't help his qualifying performance and partially explained his pre-penalty 14th position.
Trulli had no pace at all in the race and slid backwards until being dramatically taken out by Kubica. Glock moved in the opposite direction - charging up the order twice after a collision with Heidfeld that broke his wing. He eventually made it through to seventh.
A promising Friday had Bourdais up in 10th, but it was his rookie team-mate Buemi who capitalised on Toro Rosso's potential and took a surprise 10th on the grid, while an error on his best lap left Bourdais 16th.
Two spins - one while building up to the second restart - meant Bourdais only reached 11th in the race, but Buemi starred again. He battled with Raikkonen and Hamilton early on, ran in the top five, and still salvaged eighth despite breaking his front wing on the back of Vettel's car as the Red Bull slowed suddenly under yellow.
When driveshaft problems halted both Red Bulls in final practice and forced them to limit their mileage in qualifying to avoid a repeat, few could have imagined that Vettel and Webber would ultimately be celebrating a dominant 1-2 in the race.
Vettel needed just one flying lap to take his second pole, with Webber backing him up in third. They then dominated the very wet race, winning some tough battles with Button before pulling away to win by a large margin.
Compared to his recent form, only topping one practice session was a bit of a letdown for Rosberg, and Williams's weekend actually got worse when it mattered. Rosberg could only manage seventh in qualifying, with Nakajima under-performing again in 15th.
Pitting under the first safety car did Rosberg no favours, as he struggled to make up ground on a large fuel load and while grappling with a visor problem. With little to lose he tried intermediate tyres near the end, but changed back to wets after a big spin. At least he finished (in 15th), whereas Nakajima retired with transmission failure having made several errors.
Both Sutil and Fisichella spun in practice, although at least the German still managed a strong 11th place, whereas Fisichella ended Friday slowest.
They were cast adrift at the back of the field in qualifying, but Sutil flew in the race - topping his fuel up under both safety cars and running a brilliant seventh until crashing out when his worn tyres lost grip in a puddle five laps from home. Fisichella did not have the same pace and finished 14th on a one-stop strategy.
Button was quickest on Friday afternoon but saw his pole streak ended by Vettel and only managed fifth on the grid, behind Barrichello, as rivals went light to try and beat the dominant Brawns.
Red Bull had the edge in the race, despite Button's best efforts, and he had to settle for third. Struggling with his brakes, Barrichello went off briefly early on, then lost time in the pits waiting behind Button, but still finished fourth.