(CNN) -- The last time Sebastian Vettel raced in Bahrain, it was the start of a season in which he became Formula One's youngest world champion.
The German started that 2010 grand prix in pole position, and he will do so again on Sunday as the event returns to the F1 calendar after being canceled last year due to security fears following an anti-government uprising.
This year's race has become a major political controversy, with human rights campaigners and many Western politicians insisting it should not take place -- and, on the other hand, the Bahrain government saying its staging is a vital part of the kingdom's reform process, with motorsport bosses happy to be back at the Sakhir circuit.
However, on a sporting level the race gives Vettel and his Red Bull team to reassert the form that saw them dominate F1 in the past two years.
The 24-year-old started the season with second place in Australia, but his struggles in Malaysia and China indicated that his bid to become just the third driver to win three consecutive world titles might be much more difficult than many might have expected.
Shrugging off those early-season problems, Vettel surged past teammate Mark Webber to clock the fastest qualifying time on Saturday and earn pole for the 31st time in his short career.
McLaren's championship leader Lewis Hamilton also edged past the Australian at the end of the session to claim second on the grid.
"It feels great and I completely owe this one to the team," said Vettel, who finished the race fourth in 2010 after suffering gearbox problems.
"It wasn't an easy start to the season for us and there was a lot of expectation, but I think more than anything it was about what we expected from ourselves and we didn't match it.
"We've been working extremely hard on the car ... the boys haven't had much sleep the last few races. The car felt better all weekend. It wasn't the smoothest qualifying session, I nearly went out in Q1, but it's good to get the pole."
While Vettel, Hamilton and Jenson Button all struggled to qualify for the second session, seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher did not make it through after suffering technical problems.
The 43-year-old German will start in 17th place, while Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg -- who won his first race last weekend in Shanghai -- qualified fifth after deciding to set only one flying lap.
"As we have been focusing on our race pace, there is always a compromise in the qualifying setup," Rosberg said.
"I think that I'm in a good position for the race. I am the only driver in the top five who has a set of new option tires, which can be very useful at this circuit."
Schumacher was disappointed with his setback at a circuit where he won the inaugural race in 2004 with Ferrari and placed sixth in 2010 in his comeback after retirement.
"Unfortunately on my fast lap, which was looking quite good, my DRS broke in the last sector. We tried to fix it in the garage but were not able to go out again," he said.
"Trying for a lap without DRS on different tires would not have made sense. We now have to try to see what we can do from here and push as much as possible."
Button, the 2009 world champion when he raced for Mercedes' predecessor team under Ross Brawn, was another driver to hold back in the final session as he took fourth place.
"It's always a horrible feeling on your final Q3 lap when the balance isn't quite where you want it. I couldn't get the best from the car so I pitted early to save the tires," said the Englishman, the Bahrain winner three years ago.
His teammate Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, will be on the front row of the grid for the fourth successive race.
"Both Red Bull drivers will be very hard to beat in the race, but we're less than a 10th (of a second) behind on race pace. The start could be key -- we've had good launches all season so I expect us to be able to challenge Seb down to Turn One," Hamilton said.
Toro Rosso's young Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo qualified sixth ahead of Lotus' Frenchman Romain Grosjean and Sauber's Mexican Sergio Perez.
Ferrari's two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, the race winner in 2010, will start ninth after not setting a Q3 time.
Force India's Paul di Resta will be 10th after also not setting a time, choosing instead to run test laps on hard tires.
His Britain-based team returned to the circuit for Saturday's final practice session, having skipped the second one on Friday so the crew could get back to their hotel before dark.
Two members had already decided to go back to the UK after a team car was caught up in a protest on Thursday, and had a petrol bomb thrown at their vehicle.