But his 2017 title hopes were significantly boosted with victory around the streets of Monte-Carlo, beating Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen to the flag from second on the grid; his main championship rival Lewis Hamilton battled to seventh from 13th on the grid.
The final spot on the podium was taken by Daniel Ricciardo's Red Bull, who held off Valtteri Bottas despite a brush with the wall in the closing stages of the race.
It means that not only have Ferrari won for the first time in Monaco since Michael Schumacher in 2001, but it's the first time Mercedes has failed to make the podium in the principality for six years.
Vettel was supreme when it mattered, setting the track alight when the opportunity arose with a number of blistering laps, that helped him pull away from a fired up Bottas and Max Verstappen and eventually leapfrog Raikkonen at the head of the field.
His third victory of the year sees the German open up a 25 point gap to Hamilton, who will be content with his six points, given his adverse Saturday.
Some called sabotage in the Ferrari camp; Raikkonen's race sacrificed for the benefit of Vettel's championship charge, but there's little evidence to suggest that Vettel didn't deserve the top step of the podium today.
Raikkonen perky from the start
It wasn't all doom and gloom for Raikkonen, he leapt off the line to hold his lead as the field ploughed through Saint-Devote for the first time of the afternoon and immediately went about building a healthy gap to the German, breaking two second mark after 10 laps with a string of fastest laps as we edged towards the overall lap record around Monaco - eventually broken by Sergio Perez's Force India late on.
Meanwhile, Hamilton struggled in the midfield - having passed Stoffel Vandoorne's McLaren off of the start line he couldn't make the ground to become a threat at the front. He moaned about being unable to get close to the gaggle of cars in front of him, he was told to remain patient, as the race would come to him later on. It suggested that Mercedes had something special up their sleeve.
As did Vettel. He started to carve into Raikkonen's lead as the leaders hit early traffic - Monaco a notoriously difficult place to pass and lap backmarkers. But the German wasn't the only man to benefit from traffic, Bottas found himself closing in on the Ferrari, with Verstappen piling the pressure on him.
The Dutchman was the first of the front-runners to pit on lap 32, only losing places to teammate Ricciardo and the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz. Bottas followed his lead the lap after, keeping his advantage due to a slower Red Bull stop.
Next in was Raikkonen, for a race-defining stop, having struggled with his tyres for the preceding laps. He rejoined in traffic, whilst Vettel saw his main worry - the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson - peel in for his stop, releasing him into clean air. The German didn't surrender it, his pace only bettered by Ricciardo. Five laps after Raikkonen, Ferrari sprung into action, ready to receive Vettel.
Vettel emerges ahead
His pace had been enough, Raikkonen unable to get into Saint-Devote before his teammate as he wriggled out of the pit lane. Further frustration was found in the Verstappen's cockpit when he learned about Ricciardo's gain of two positions at the expense of himself and Bottas.
Hamilton was the final man to stop, as he held a very welcome sixth place with little difficulty. He dropped one place, behind Sainz and stayed there for the remaining 32 laps.
That looked to have been the end of the drama, until Pascal Wehrlein's heart-stopping accident with returnee Jenson Button at Portier on lap 57, prompting an appearance from Bernd Maylander in the Safety Car.
Whilst trying to pass Wehrlein, Button tipped the Sauber head-first into the wall, breaking his front left suspension in the process. So much for heading Indy 500 bound Fernando Alonso's pre-race plea of "looking after the car." Fortunately, Wehrlein was able to hop out of his car without a bruise after a nerve-wracking wait.
Even under the Safety Car, the casualties mounted; Ericsson ended Sauber's dismal weekend in the wall at Saint-Devote after having no stopping power from cold brakes and no grip on cold tyres.
When the Safety Car came in, Vandoorne copied the Swede, whilst trying to battle with a frustrated Perez, ending McLaren's realistic hope of points. Ricciardo also touched the outside wall, fortuitous to get away with no damage and third place.
Whilst the battle for third heated up, Vettel lit up the track again, building a comfortable gap to Raikkonen and holding on for a precious win.
With the F1 roadshow visiting Canada next - a very strong track for Hamilton - it may turn out to be one of his biggest races of the season.
|3||Daniel RICCIARDO||Red Bull||78||+3.745||15|
|5||Max VERSTAPPEN||Red Bull||78||+6.199||10|
|6||Carlos SAINZ||Toro Rosso||78||+12.038||8|
|12||Esteban OCON||Force India||78||+23.725|
|13||Sergio PEREZ||Force India||78||+39.089|
|Ret||Daniil KVYAT||Toro Rosso||71||Damage|