The 26-year-old German, more than ever in a class of his own, made his 45th career pole - and ninth of the season - look all too easy as he swept round a rain-soaked track with a time of one minute 26.479 seconds.
Nico Rosberg joined his compatriot on the front row for Mercedes, but the 0.623 second gulf between his time and Vettel's told the real story.
"He was really impressive in that last session there," said Red Bull principal Christian Horner after a jubilant Vettel had celebrated the pole with a cheer of 'Ole, ole' over the team radio.
"To produce two laps that were over half a second clear of the rest of the field in such tricky conditions, what more can you say?"
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso equalled his best position of the season with third place next to Vettel's Australian team mate Mark Webber, preparing for his Formula One farewell before heading off to race sportscars with Porsche.
Webber, who had topped the timesheets in a meaningless final practice with most drivers conserving tyres, was more than a second off Vettel's pace while Alonso said a mistake had cost him eight tenths.
"I went off at turn four, I was very late and missed the corner," he explained, saying second place would have been possible but not pole.
Vettel, who clinched his fourth title in a row in India last month, is now perfectly placed to claim a record ninth successive win in a single season on Sunday.
Victory would also be his 13th of the season, equalling Michael Schumacher's 2004 record with Ferrari.
Vettel, along with the others who made it through to the last 10, had to wait 45 minutes in the garages to complete the session due to the incessant rain and standing water on the track delaying the final phase.
"I was so happy after the quali, especially Q3," he told reporters. "It took a long time for us to get out, there was a lot of rain after Q2...we had to wait. If there's too much water on the track, the risk of aquaplaning is too high.
"I was surprised by the margin. When I was told I was very happy, I even mixed up Spanish and Portuguese and was on the radio saying 'ole, ole'. I don't know the expression in Portuguese," he grinned.
"Maybe someone can tell me today and hopefully I'll have another chance tomorrow."
Lewis Hamilton qualified fifth for Mercedes with Frenchman Romain Grosjean sixth for Lotus.
Mercedes, Ferrari and Lotus are fighting for second place in the constructors' championship and the status and significant financial rewards the position brings with it. Mercedes are 15 points clear of Ferrari, with Lotus a further 18 adrift.
Brazilian Felipe Massa will start his last race for Ferrari in ninth place and sounded frustrated talking to reporters after the session.
"I can't be satisfied. I couldn't get a great lap. I hope I can have a great race, let's put everything in the race," he said. "It's a very special race to me, definitely I will be emotional tomorrow."
McLaren's dismal season continued with both Jenson Button and Sergio Perez failing to make it through to the final phase, with the Mexican crashing his car heavily into the wall at the end of the second part.
"I just tried to risk everything I could and it just ended up badly," said Perez.
"I think the crash looked bigger than it was. The hit was not that big."
If the team fail to take at least a fourth place on Sunday, it will be their worst season since they started out in 1966.