Red Bull’s German world champion elected to return for new intermediates halfway through Q3 – despite leaving himself little time to post a competitive lap-time.
Force India’s Adrian Sutil led Q1, managing a time of 136.809 on a set of softer medium tyres – one-and-a-half tenths of a second quicker than second-placed Kimi Raikonnen.
But the surprise of Q1 was the uncompetitive Red Bulls, with Vettel dangling just above the knock-out zone on 15th and Webber saving himself at the end with ninth place.
And as the rain lashed down halfway through Q2 many drivers who had opted for the harder tyres found themselves scrambling back to the pits for a change.
The weather made casualties of Roman Grosjean and Paul Di Resta – the latter having a torrid time, forced off between turns seven and eight before spinning out on his final attempt.
Yet it was Nico Rosberg who led Q2, finishing almost three tenths of a second in front of Webber, and roughly four tenths of a second ahead of Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton.
With a break in the rain for Q3, everyone remaining opted for intermediates to tackle the damp track but still found the drive problematic as lock-ups became a common occurrence.
Having set the early pace for Q3 with a time of 1:52:876, Vettel ducked back into the pits for new intermediates, followed by Sutil and Kimi Raikkonen.
Hamilton sprung a surprise at the end of Q3, taking the provision lead, knocking roughly half a second off Vettel’s time, taking home an excellent 1:51.699.
However, Vettel’s pit gambit paid off, taking pole position off his final flying lap with a time of 1:49.674, sparking celebratory scenes in the Red Bull garage.
Sitting just behind the front row was Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who found himself in the unenviable position of being out-qualified by a team-mate for the first time in Malaysia since 2006.
1. Sebastian Vettel Germany Red Bull-Renault 1m 49.674s
2. Felipe Massa Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari 1m 50.587s
3. Fernando Alonso Spain Ferrari-Ferrari 1m 50.727s
4. Lewis Hamilton Britain Mercedes-Mercedes 1m 51.699s
5. Mark Webber Australia Red Bull-Renault 1m 52.244s
6. Nico Rosberg Germany Mercedes-Mercedes 1m 52.519s
7. Kimi Raikkonen Finand Lotus-Renault 1m 52.970s
8. Jenson Button Britain McLaren-Mercedes 1m 53.175s
9. Adrian Sutil Germany Force India-Mercedes 1m 53.439s
10. Sergio Perez Mexico McLaren-Mercedes 1m 54.136s
11. Romain Grosjean France Lotus-Renault 1m 37.636s
12. Nico Hulkenberg Germany Sauber-Ferrari 1m 38.125s
13. Daniel Ricciardo Australia Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m 38.822s
14. Esteban Gutierrez Mexico Sauber-Ferrari 1m 39.221s
15. Paul di Resta Britain Force India-Mercedes 1m 44.509s
16. Pastor Maldonado Venezuela Williams-Renault no time Q2
17. Jean-Eric Vergne France Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m 38.157s
18. Valtteri Bottas Finland Williams-Renault 1m 38.207s
19. Jules Bianchi France Marussia-Cosworth 1m 38.434s
20. Charles Pic France Caterham-Renault 1m 39.314s
21. Max Chilton Britain Marussia-Cosworth 1m 39.672s
22. Giedo van der Garde Holland Caterham-Renault 1m 39.932s