The reigning world champion's blistering lap of one minute 42.841 seconds with the very first lap of Q3 left him over half a second clear of the field, and he decided to end his session early in order to save a new set of super-soft tyres for the race.
It was an astonishingly confident decision - perhaps even arrogant - and Nico Rosberg almost made the Red Bull star's move backfire, producing a brilliant drive in the Mercedes to get within 0.091 seconds of Vettel and claim second spot on the grid.
But Vettel's mastery of the final sector - on which he has been untouchable all weekend - ensured that nobody could overhaul his fastest lap and deny him a 41st pole position of his career.
"It's a great feeling because it could have gone wrong," admitted Vettel, who was watching all those last laps from the garage as Webber, Rosberg and Grosjean all went faster in the first two sectors.
"I knew we would have a cushion which is why we decided not to run again," he added.
"What we don't know is how much the track improves, plus the fact that if you run again you get more feel for the tyres and track.
"We thought it was good enough, in the end it was."
Felipe Massa almost went out back in Q1 until a quick lap late on, but ended up qualifying sixth with Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Gutierrez making up the top 10 - the latter delighted just to be in Q3 for the first time in his career.