Fired up by home advantage, and some Reggae music as he prepared to compete, Louis Smith led a composed British team to a 2.435-point lead over the Chinese, who are undefeated since they lost in the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Smith had tears in his eyes after nailing a flawless routine on the pommel horse – the apparatus that gave him a bronze medal in 2008 – and scoring 15.800, by far the highest score in the discipline in the first of the day’s three sessions.
China, missing 2004 Olympic pommel horse champion Teng Haibin with an arm injury, led for the first four rotations but slipped behind as one mistake followed another.
Zhang Chenglong overbalanced on the pommel horse and somersaulted off, after Guo Weiyang – Teng’s stand-in – had banged his head in a clumsy landing from a tumble on the floor.
“We should have beaten Britain but Teng’s late withdrawal affected us and we did not perform as well as we should have,” Chen Yibing, one of the 2008 team champions, told reporters.
“Guo came in as a substitute and he made quite a few mistakes because he has a lack of experience.”
The British team were elated.
“It was just a dream competition,” said Smith after Britain, the European champions, were cheered out of the North Greenwich Arena with 272.420 points to China’s 269.985.
“It is just unbelievable.”
Beijing runners-up Japan, the 2004 champions, and 2008 bronze medallists the United States will compete in the second qualifying session later yesterday, with Russia in the day’s third group.
Eight teams qualify for Monday’s final and places are also up for grabs in the individual apparatus and all-round finals.
Briton Kristian Thomas led the individual standings after the first group, just ahead of team mate Daniel Purvis.
Filip Ude, who became Croatia’s first Olympic gymnastics medallist four years ago with silver on the pommel horse, looked unlikely to get a chance to have another go in the final after he lost his grip and slipped off the apparatus.
Dutchman Epke Zonderland, whose routine includes a tricky triple release sequence, led the high bar standings, with China’s defending champion Zou Kai nearly half a point behind in third place.
Though the home fans produced some impressive noise, many of the expensive seats in the venue – renamed for the Olympics from its more familiar name of the 02 Arena as the mobile phone company are not Olympic sponsors – remained empty for the session.