Vettel clocked 1min 31.095sec at the Shanghai International Circuit in final qualifying on Saturday ahead of teammate Kimi Raikkonen.
Valtteri Bottas was third fastest and his Mercedes teammate and defending world champion Lewis Hamilton fourth.
"The car was really amazing, it just kept getting better. So I'm really happy," Vettel said.
The German's flying lap ensured back-to-back front row lockouts for Ferrari for the first time in 12 years despite Vettel admitting to being a bit wobbly on some turns in cold qualifying conditions.
"I was a bit beaten up, but knew that if I could get a tidy lap and have a little bit of margin, I can push it. It was really good," Vettel said.
Hamilton, who has more wins in Shanghai than anyone else with five, was more than a half-second off Vettel's pace, and admitted he couldn't explain why.
"We started the weekend positively in practice, but the car went away from us today. The pace just wasn't there, he said.
"It's not going to be easy to beat Kimi and Sebastian tomorrow, they're the quickest on the straights too, so overtaking will be tough."
"We start fourth and I'm going to have to fight from there."
A Ferrari win in Shanghai would prompt more questions for Mercedes after Vettel took the first two races of the season in Australia and Bahrain to open a 17-point lead in the standings over Hamilton.