After a record-breaking 15 poles last season, Vettel had failed to get anywhere near the front row prior to Saturday, the 24-year-old even a miserable 11th in China last Saturday, his worst performance for 42 races.
But from nowhere, Vettel and Red Bull have managed to find some speed this past week, leading to his traditional raised index finger once he emerged from his car.
McLaren's Lewis Hamilton was forced to settle for second, just 0.098seconds behind Vettel's pole lap of one minute 32.422secs, with team-mates Mark Webber and Jenson Button on the second row in third and fourth.
It was a qualifying session, however, that took place against a surreal backdrop of virtually empty grandstands in light of the unrest in the Gulf kingdom that has overshadowed this event.
Last weekend's polesitter and debut race winner Nico Rosberg in his Mercedes could only manage fifth, followed by an astonishing performance from Daniel Ricciardo in sixth for Toro Rosso.
Lotus' Romain Grosjean starts seventh, followed by the Sauber of Sergio Perez, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Paul di Resta in his Force India.
The Silverstone-based team were not shown once during the session by Formula One Management, who control the television feed.
It has been suggested that was in response to their decision on Friday not to take part in second practice due to safety concerns for their staff after four were involved in a petrol-bomb incident on Wednesday.
To underline the competitive nature of qualifying these days, the top 15 drivers in Q2 were covered by a second.
Kimi Raikkonen was its prime casualty, ironically dumped down out of the top 10 by team-mate Grosjean, who was third quickest in the session with half a second covering them.
Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi and Nico Hulkenberg for Force India line up 12th and 13th, ahead of Ferrari's two-time winner here Felipe Massa, but who again failed to make Q3, while Williams' Bruno Senna lines up 15th.
After starting from second on the grid on Sunday in Shanghai, Michael Schumacher will ob Sunday be forced to fight his way through the field from 17th after being knocked out in Q1.
A combination of factors resulted in his surprise early exit, most notably a DRS failure, which can be used for almost half of a lap in qualifying compared to just one overtaking point in a race.
The seven-times champion also made an error on his one hot lap and then Mercedes clearly thought he was safe, with it all adding up to a qualifying disaster.
While Schumacher sat in his garage seemingly preparing for Q2, his name slowly tumbled down the timesheet as a number of others switched to the softer, faster Pirelli compound.
Ultimately, in the dying seconds, it was Heikki Kovalainen in his Caterham who dumped Schumacher out of Q1, with the Finn 16th.
Williams' Pastor Maldonado qualified 17th, but drops to 22nd due to incurring a five-place penalty for a gearbox change.
Behind Schumacher will be Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne, Vitaly Petrov in his Caterham, Marussia's Charles Pic and HRT's Pedro de la Rosa, who all move up a place courtesy of Maldonado.
On the back row will be Timo Glock in his Marussia and Narain Karthikeyan for HRT.
A smiling Vettel said: "It feels great, which I owe to the team.
"It's not been an easy start to the season, but what we have done here is what we expect from ourselves.
"We've been busy working on the car, trying to find the right solution, with the boys hardly getting any sleep over the last four race weekends.
"They've certainly not had much here, but the car is much better and it's great to have just beaten Lewis for pole."
After being on pole at the first two races, and qualifying second in China before a five-place penalty, Hamilton declared himself "happy" again with the job he had done.
"I've a good set up all weekend, and although my Q3 wasn't spectacular, we just have to keep on pushing," said Hamilton.
Webber, who had qualified ahead of Vettel at the first three races, said: "In the end we're satisfied to be towards the front.
"There have previously been some big gaps to the opposition, so it's pretty surprising to be as competitive as we are on a track that does not play to our strengths.
"But we're at the front, I'm pleased for the guys, and we can have a good race from there."