Vettel cemented his status as the number one rival to Hamilton and his all-conquering Mercedes team by virtue of winning the season-opening race in Australia a fortnight ago.
And the two title protagonists went up against each other again at the Shanghai International Circuit in a pulsating qualifying session, with Hamilton winning the battle to ensure he will start from the very front while Vettel is in second and his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas third.
Daniel Ricciardo is fifth for Red Bull with Felipe Massa starting sixth in his Williams.
After the weather farce of Friday, in which second practice was abandoned without one driver completing a single lap, blue skies ensured the cars roared back into life on a dry track on Saturday.
And while rain is still forecast to play a role in tomorrow's race it is Hamilton who will lead the pack off for the second race in a row.
The 32-year-old triple world champion, who is closing in on Michael Schumacher's all-time pole record, set the fastest lap ever seen in Shanghai to beat Vettel to pole by 0.183 seconds. Bottas was just one thousandths of a second slower than the Ferrari man. Kimi Raikkonen lines up in fourth.
Hamilton got out of his car and climbed aboard the scaffolding adorning the pit straight to pump his fist and salute his large legion of Chinese fans in the main grandstand - many of whom were waving Union Jacks.
Hamilton's former team-mate Fernando Alonso predicted a gloomy outcome for his McLaren team this weekend, and the Spaniard declared that he was "driving like an animal" to haul his car into the second part of qualifying.
But that is where it would end for the double world champion, who will start 13th on Sunday. His rookie team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne failed to progress from Q1 and lines up in 16th.
Antonio Giovinazzi impressed on his last-minute call-up to replace the unfit Pascal Wehrlein in Melbourne, but the Italian was brought back down to earth here after he crashed out.
The 22-year-old lost control of his Sauber as he exited the final corner before smashing into the tyre barrier on the opposite side of the track.
Giovinazzi walked away from the incident but his car was not so fortunate, with bits of Sauber debris littering the pit straight.
The crash, in the final moments of Q1, scuppered a number of drivers on their final runs. with Britain's Jolyon Palmer falling at the first hurdle of qualifying for the second race in a row.
"I was miles up on where I was so I think my lap was enough for Q2," Palmer said. "I couldn't believe it because the car has been feeling good this weekend."
Palmer, who was only 18th of the 20 runners, is also under investigation by the stewards for failing to slow sufficiently for the yellow flags deployed after Givoinazzi's crash.
"I lost a second in the final sector," Palmer added. "If they look at the data I think they will see I was cruising across the line."
Max Verstappen will start one place behind Palmer after his day was thwarted by a problem with the Renault engine in his Red Bull.
Final positions after qualifying:
1. Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes 1:31.678
2. Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari 1:31.864
3. Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes 1:31.865
4. Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:32.140
5. Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull 1:33.033
6. Felipe Massa (Brazil) Williams 1:33.507
7. Nico Huelkenberg (Ger) Renault 1:33.580
8. Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India 1:33.706
9. Daniil Kvyat (Rus) Toro Rosso 1:33.719
10. Lance Stroll (Can) Williams 1:34.220
11. Carlos Sainz Jr (Spa) Toro Rosso 1:34.150
12. Kevin Magnussen (Den) Haas 1:34.164
13. Fernando Alonso (Spa) McLaren 1:34.372
14. Marcus Ericsson (Swe) Sauber 1:35.046
15. Antonio Giovinazzi (Ita) Sauber
16. Stoffel Vandoorne (Bel) McLaren 1:35.023
17. Romain Grosjean (Fra) Haas 1:35.223
18. Jolyon Palmer (Gbr) Renault 1:35.279
19. Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull 1:35.433
20. Esteban Ocon (Fra) Force India 1:35.496
In case you missed it
If you didn't catch it the first time or just want to watch it again, here is the lap that gave Hamilton his 63rd career pole.
Here is where your favourite driver should be starting tomorrow, with Grosjean and Palmer still due to meet with the stewards for speeding under the yellow flags.
The man on pole
Talking after qualifying, Hamilton said: "We're really fighting these guys [Ferrari]. It's amazing. It's what this sport should be all about"
"I haven't driven on the new wet tyre at all this season. So it will be a new lesson for me if it rains tomorrow!
"It's meant to be wet at the start. If it is, tomorrow could be one of the most exciting days we've all had for a long time."
Do you think he will get his fifth Chinese GP win tomorrow?
Your front three
Will the same three driver's be on the podium at the end of the race?
Strolling into Q3
There has been a lot of talk about Lance Stroll getting his chance at Williams, but today he did his team and father proud.
Starting in tenth is very respectable and puts him ahead of Fernando Alonso, , Max Vertsappen and Jolyon Palmer in only his second qualifying session.
Vettel to Bottas
Toto Wolff has just explained that the gap between Vettel and Bottas equalled 5.9cm on track - described as a thousandth of a second.
Lets just think about that for a minute.
With a 90 percent chance of rain for the race all teams will know that their starting place may not be enough to get them the points they need.
Verstappen will fancy his chances of moving up from 19th, especially in the rain after he went from 14th to third in Brazil last year.
Not a bad record
Is anyone else excited for tomorrow?
Thankfully for the table, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff won't be banging it today after some more impressive driving from Hamilton.
He has done it again
It wasn't easy but the three-time World champion dug deep to get his pole, knowing that the man who starts at the front in Shanghai.
Key moment may well be those two turns of 9 and 10, where Hamilton just sailed along the track.
Who knows what the race will bring tomorrow.
Hamilton on pole!
The Briton clocks a time of 1:31.678 for his sixth consecutive pole and Vettel joins him again on the front row. A superb drive from the Briton who was ahead of the Ferrari by 0.186.
Bottas is third and will be followed by Raikonnen, Ricciardo and Massa. Hulkenberg, Perez , Kvyatt and Stroll make up the top ten.
We're nearly there
The remaining nine cars are out on track and it will go down to the wire as Mercedes look to claim that front row.
As lovely as it is to see Stroll in Q3, he is slowing the pacesetters down as they look to start their final laps.
Who will come out on top?
The Renault retires
Hulkenberg is in the garage and the helmet is off so he is not expected to run again. He is currently sixth with cars still running.
It's tight at the top
Six minutes of Q3 left
Hamilton leads from Vettel by 0.184s followed by Bottas, Raikonnen and Ricciardo.
Hulkenberg is sixth, then it is Massa, Kvyat, Perez and Stroll.
The fight for pole
Every driver except Stroll and Perez are out on track and Hamilton will feel confident at a track where he has been on the podium seven times.
The Mercedes is not the only driver to get a bit of oversteer in the middle sector of the track. Is this a sign of things to come?
Hamilton is provisional pole.
Q2 provisional positions
Hulkenberg and Sainz are out of the pits as we wait to see if Mercedes take their sixth consecutive pole at the Chinese Grand Prix.
Raikonnen sets the fastest ever lap recorded at shanghai with a lap of 1:32.181!
Q2 comes to an end
The driver's out at the end of Q2 are Sainz, Magnussen, Alonso, Ericsson and Giovinazzi.
The battered car of Giovinazzi will need a lot of work tonight before he starts tomorrow's race in 15th.
Two minutes of Q2 left
The two Ferrari's of Vettel and Raikonnen are out for another lap on the supersoft tyre's after using their soft's in Q1. The rest of the top five - Hamilton, Bottas and Ricciardo remain in the pits.
In case you missed it earlier, here were the provisional times at the end of the first qualifying session.
PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION (Q1)< div>8:45AM
Williams - the dark horses this weekend?
The fan favourite is quietly going about his business in the Williams and is .21s behind Ricciardo in fifth after finishing 11th in Australia. His young teammate Lance Stroll is just behind him in seventh followed by Kvyat, Sainz and Perez.8:42AM
The gap is close in Q2
Raikonnen crosses the line first with a time of 1:32.602 before Vettel heads to the top by going .2s quicker. But then Hamilton and Bottas go second and third respectively with just .211s between the top four.
It looks like we are going to have another Ferrari vs Mercedes shoot-out for pole.8:39AM
The cars are out and we hear Rocky - Hamilton's engineer - telling him: "This is the race start setup," suggesting that they want to get that time as quickly as possible.
The wait continues
We've got another delay of five minutes as they fix the wall after Giovinazzi's spin on the final corner.
Grosjean and Palmer will be called to the stewards after they are ruled not to have slowed down sufficiently following the crash.8:30AM
What is happening at Red Bull?
After a disappointing Australian Grand Prix for Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen will start from the back row in China after engine software problem.8:28AM
The start of Q2 will be slightly delayed as the marshals clear up the pieces of Sauber. To recap; Vandoorne, Grosjean, Palmer, Verstappen and Ocon end their day in Q1.
Verstappen starts on the back row, which is great as I tipped him to win in the rain. It could still happen....
Lewis Hamilton went from 22nd to 8th last year, so it's not impossible.8:23AM
Giovinazzi and Grosjean
It looks like the Sauber driver clips the astroturf and just loses control of the car. the stewards sweep up the track and we wait for Q2 as he walks back to the pits.8:21AM
We have a Sauber in bits across the track at the last corner and it's Giovinazzi who crashes into the tyre barrier. Although he makes it into Q2, Palmer and Grosjean will not after his crash ruined their last opportunity to miss the cut.8:17AM
Max is back
Verstappen is back out on the supersoft tyre's as he looks to make the most of the three minutes left. He and Grosjean are yet to log a lap time.8:15AM
Q1 is drawing to a close
With just over five minutes left; Stroll, Ocon, Palmer, Grosjean and Verstappen will end their qualifying here if they fail to improve their lap times.8:14AM
Max in trouble
Verstappen has told his engineers that there is "something wrong with the engine".
He is back in the pits and unless he can get back out there he will fail to make Q2.8:12AM
After 10 minutes
With eight minutes to go Vettel leads from Hamilton, Raikonnen, Bottas and Ricciardo.8:11AM
Ferrari's German driver has gone fastest by 0.255s after using the soft tyre's. Only he and his teammate Kimi Raikonnen are using them of the 13 cars out on track.8:10AM
It's Hammer Time
Lewis Hamilton is out on track. He has set the fastest time but Romain Grosjean - who else - brought the yellow flags out after getting a puncture.8:07AM
The legendary Michael Schumacher set a time of 1:32.238 in 2004.
Will someone break that this weekend?8:02AM
Here we go
The drivers' are in their beautiful cars and we will expect to see most cars using the supersoft tyre's today.
And we have our first driver out on track, the Sauber new boy Antonio Giovinazzi.7:58AM
Who do you think will be on pole?
There is still time to get your votes in for the driver you think will lead from the front in Shanghai.7:56AM
Due to the low mist we only had 20 minutes of practice on Friday with Max Verstappen leading the times.
Most of the drivers' relaxed in the paddock, but Lewis Hamilton took the chance to give some fans a moment they will never forget with signed caps.7:53AM
There is a 90 percent chance of rain for the race tomorrow, which may mean that whoever takes pole will have the weather as well as the other drivers to deal with.7:50AM
15 minutes to go...
We are getting nearer to the first qualifying session and Mercedes will hope they can make it six consecutive poles in China, but will it be Hamilton or his new teammate Bottas?7:46AM
After Friday's sessions were ruined by weather, here's a round-up of the only complete practice session.
Sebastian Vettel topped the timesheets ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen as Ferrari set a scorching pace in Saturday’s final practice session ahead of qualifying for the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix.
Four-times world champion Vettel posted a quickest time of 1:33.336s, just 0.053s quicker than Raikkonen, with the Finn followed by Mercedes pair Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton.
Bottas, who has replaced retired world champion Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, was third fastest clocking 0.371s off Vettel’s pace, with Hamilton half a second slower than the German's Ferrari.
Vettel’s lap was two seconds faster than the time Rosberg set on his way to pole position last year at the circuit, where Mercedes have won four of the last five races.7:34AM
Good morning everyone. The drivers are in Shanghai and after a disrupted Friday we hope to see some laps at the International Circuit today.