Vettel's error occurred as the clock ticked down on the 90 minutes for the opening session at the Suzuka circuit, a simple one as the 24-year-old was late on the brakes turning into the right-hander at the famous Degner Curves.
Running wide on to the astroturf and then the gravel at Degner One, Vettel was left with nowhere to go as he ground to a halt at Degner Two, nudging the nose of his Red Bull gently against a tyre barrier.
The run-off areas at Suzuka are renowned for their unforgiving nature because unlike the swathes of asphalt that proliferate many of the modern circuits, gravel traps await those who go slightly off-line.
Many Formula One fans will be hoping Vettel does something similar on Sunday, a race in which he cannot score and McLaren's Jenson Button must win if the title race is to be extended for another week.
Vettel, though, has previously recovered from more serious errors in FP1 in both Turkey and Canada where he severely damaged his car by claiming first and second respectively in each race.
At least Button set off on the right foot in his slender bid to keep the championship pot boiling by setting the fastest time, marginally ahead of Lewis Hamilton.
Button, who committed his future to McLaren this week by signing a 'multi-year' deal, clocked one minute 33.634secs for the 5.807km circuit, with Hamilton just 0.091secs adrift.
Although Friday times are never a true indicator of pace, Vettel was surprisingly half a second down in third, followed by Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber in his Red Bull, the duo 0.738secs and 0.792secs adrift.
They are the five drivers who have been head and shoulders above the rest of the field all season, and it was the case again for first practice.
Jaime Alguersuari in his Toro Rosso was a strong sixth, albeit the Spaniard 1.3secs behind Button, with Ferrari's Felipe Massa almost two seconds down, edging ahead of Sebastien Buemi in his Toro Rosso by 0.005secs.
Mercedes' Michael Schumacher and Renault's Vitaly Petrov rounded out the top 10, albeit 2.3secs and 2.7secs adrift respectively.
Taking to the circuit for the first time, Paul di Resta in his Force India was 14th, 3.3secs down overall, finishing two places and 0.3secs behind reserve driver Nico Hulkenberg.
Indian pair Karun Chandhok and Narain Karthikeyan were also given an outing for Lotus and Hispania respectively ahead of regulars Heikki Kovalainen and Vitantonio Liuzzi, finishing 20th and 24th, the latter 8.1secs down.