No driver in the sport has failed to clinch the title after winning the opening three rounds, and Vettel is poised to complete the first part of the bargain after edging out his Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen for the second week in succession.
The German is favorite to win his third race of the season and former F1 drivers' world champion Damon Hill believes the tide is turning.
MercedesAMG have dominated in China for the past 7 years for the last time a Silver Arrow vehicle failed to line up on the pole.
The allowed Red Bull to pit both its drivers for fresh tyres, triggering a phenomenal charge through the field by Ricciardo, who caught and passed Bottas lap 45 despite being squeezed on the inside of the corner by the Finn.
Vettel has only once won the Chinese GP before in 2009 for Red Bull, while Ferrari have not been victorious in Shanghai since Fernando Alonso took the flag in 2013.
On a chastening day for the team which has dominated F1 for the past four years, Mercedes were soundly beaten, the Silver Arrows half a second slower than Ferrari in the top-10 shootout.
"I was happy with the whole lap", said Vettel who finished just 0.087 seconds clear of Raikkonen.
"I think this is what happened", he said.
"We didn't really do much on the auto, I didn't have to fight to find [the right set-up]". Kevin Magnussen has made both Q3 sessions for one of 2018's surprise package, and while Romain Grosjean was impressive in Australia, he didn't even make it out of Q1 in Bahrain.
Ricciardo, meanwhile, built up a cushion over Bottas to claim an ultimately comfortable victory, with Kimi Raikkonen taking third having earlier looked out of podium contention and Hamilton fourth.
Another interesting team to watch will be Red Bull. Lewis Hamilton starts fourth for Mercedes.
"I didn't see him until late and left a bit of room".
Only Ferrari and Mercedes felt sufficiently confident to give it a go, and though Vettel and Raikkonen both began laps on ultrasoft tyres as security in the final moments of the session, neither set a time, meaning them, Hamilton and Bottas will be able to execute a one-stop strategy tomorrow (Apr 15). They, like Mercedes, will start Sunday's race on the soft tyres.
Lance Stroll in P18 led the Sauber drivers, with Charles Leclerc, who nearly crashed his vehicle when he ran wide out of the last corner before his final lap, heading Marcus Ericsson by half a second.