The 29-year-old German secured the prime starting position by persevering on his final lap in rapidly-drying conditions as Mercedes team-mate and home hero Briton Lewis Hamilton pulled into the pits, thinking like most observers that he was already safe on pole.
It was a sensational finish to an unpredictable session that saw both Ferrari and both Williams eliminated in the Q1 part of qualifying and which delivered surprises throughout.
For Rosberg, it was his fourth pole of the year, drawing him level with Hamilton, his first at Silverstone and the eighth of his career and gave him a great opportunity to enlarge his 29 points lead in the drivers’ championship.
“It was definitely quite crazy,” said a remarkably cool Rosberg. “Certainly in first qualifying it was and last qualifying also… The tyres were still drying out so we lost time on the out lap.
“We sat in the garage and eventually came to the conclusion that we might as well go out and have a look. Then it seemed like it was worth it because the last part of the lap was very dry. It was a great team effort.”
Hamilton had dominated until the final seconds when, thinking he was secure, he went to the pits while his rivals improved their times by more than three seconds in the final sector of the lap.
Rosberg’s fellow-German, defending four time champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull, qualified second on the front row ahead of Briton Jenson Button of McLaren, German Nico Hulkenberg of Force India and Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen who was fifth for McLaren.
Hamilton wound up in sixth place ahead of Mexican Sergio Perez in the second Force India and Australian Daniel Ricciardo in the second Red Bull.
Asked why he pulled in, a bitterly disappointed Hamilton said: “I don’t know, I don’t have much of an answer… I just decided not to do the lap.” He added that he did not believe it was dry enough for him to improve his time.
“Obviously not… I don’t have anything to say to you at the moment.”
Mercedes team boss Paddy Lowe said it was the driver’s decision to abort the lap. “He felt the lap was worse,” said Lowe. “He bailed out, which was unfortunate as a lot of time was found in sector three.”
On a day of intermittent heavy rainfall, and after a rain-hit final free practice in the morning, it was always likely that the rapidly-changing conditions would create problems.
This was apparent in Q1 when the treacherous weather created a major upset as both Ferraris and the two Williams men, who had locked out the front row of the grid in Austraia two weeks earlier, were eliminated along with the two Caterhams.
In gently drying conditions, Hamilton set the early pace ahead of Ricciardo before the struggling teams gambled on slick tyres in the closing minutes. This led to a scramble in which Mercedes reacted first, Rosberg going quickest ahead of Kvyat with Hamilton third.
But Ferrari and Williams missed ‘the window’ and hit problems as it began to rain again.
This resulted in Finn Valtteri Bottas and his Williams team-mate Brazilian Felipe Massa winding up 17th and 18th ahead of Alonso in 19th and Raikkonen who was 20th.
Swedish rookie Marcus Ericsson finished 21st ahead of Japanese Kamui Kobayashi in the two ‘under new owners’ Caterhams.
Almost as remarkably, the two Marussia cars of Frenchman Jules Bianchi and Briton Max Chilton timed their slick tyre runs perfectly to take fourth and fifth places in the leading group.
All this was a clear warning to the top outfits. Hamilton heeded it well and was soon clear at the top on medium tyres in Q2 in which a fast Vettel lap was disqualified because he took all four wheels off the circuit.
The champion responded to finish up third behind the rapid Hamilton and Rosberg as Mexican Esteban Gutierrez crashed to join Sauber team-mate German Adrian Sutil in the team’s repairs bay.