The German was 0.530 faster than Bottas in qualifying and 0.568 quicker than Hamilton, who has won an unprecedented five times previously in Shanghai and arrived as a favourite. We need to stay out of any issues and go from there.
Saturday's pole was Vettel's second in three races this season and Ferrari's first in Shanghai since Brazilian Rubens Barrichello started the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix from the front in 2004.
"So I knew that I had a little bit more and obviously in the last lap I got it all together and [was] very happy that when I crossed the line I was looking up to see the screen and I saw something green, which is usually good, and a little bit of purple".
"We started the weekend positively in practice, but the vehicle went away from us today", he said. However, his mechanics put a shift in and repaired his vehicle in enough time to make sure he got his laps in and tok part in qualifying albeit his performance was hampered by this dent in momentum.
Vettel said that Verstappen was past the point where the Dutchman's relative inexperience could be seen as an excuse.
After allowing Vettel and Ferrari to top the podium in each of the season's first two races, this is a good place for Mercedes to bounce back.
The Briton finished fifth on track but moved up to fourth after a 10 second penalty was applied to Red Bull's Max Verstappen.
Speaking after the session, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff reckoned that his team's struggles owed more to not getting its tyres into the right operating window than any major problem with its vehicle. "I had no pace so I was just trying to hold on for whatever I had", the Mercedes driver told reporters at the Chinese Grand Prix.
Vettel had led the race's first stint before losing out to Valtteri Bottas in the pitstop sequence.
"They've been really strong all day, already in the morning", Wolff said.
The third row will be made up of the two Red Bull cars. The Finn was faster than Hamilton but his best time was set on the soft tyre - he failed to improve on the ultra-soft, which ought to be the quickest.
"We're learning more about the auto and getting more from it", he said.
Kevin Magnussen's Haas was sixth quickest, about where the team is now expected to be after a strong start to the season, but the Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon were seventh and eighth just a day after technical director Andrew Green explained that the vehicle had a fundamental imbalance issue.