The Red Bull driver finished three tenths clear of home favourite Lewis Hamilton on the Arena circuit as the drivers got their first taste of the revised Silverstone layout for 2010.
It was clear, however, that the first session was all about reconnaissance rather than quick times.
Robert Kubica set the third quickest time for Renault in the week they confirmed they had secured the PoleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s services until 2012.
Both Hamilton and Vettel have the pace to battle for pole position tomorrow, with Hamilton looking quicker than last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s race winner.
Michael Schumacher was the first of the drivers to go off at the slippery new Village corner as he lost the rear end on the way in, and repeating the error just two laps later.
The former world champion was not the only driver struggling to get to grips with the new configuration as Hamilton, Sutil, FerrariÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Felipe Massa, WilliamsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Nico HÃƒÂ¼lkenberg and LotusÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ test driver Fairuz Fauzy went off in the same corner.
The new bumpy Abbey corner also caused problems as drivers got used to turning right instead of left, as several tried different set-ups and techniques to get through the fast corner safely.
Di Resta eventually finished 14th after a fuel pressure problem kept him out for the first hour of practice, while world champion Jenson Button finished eighth quickest. Fernando Alonso finished 13th quickest, and team mate Massa 17th in a disappointing session for Ferrari.
Sakon Yamamoto, in for Bruno Senna at Hispania, was slowest, two seconds down on 21st quickest Virgin RacingÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Lucas di Grassi, and some 7.4 seconds slower than Vettel.
All cars should be quicker in the second practice session as the teams analyse the data from this morningÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s efforts, and the track rubbers in, with GP2 practice and the Formula BMW qualifying both to come before the second 90-minute session at 14:00.
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