Red Bull chose not to get involved in the pole fight, declining to set a Q3 time and instead starting Vettel on medium tyres from ninth on the grid.
Although fourth-placed Vettel was the highest finisher among the drivers using that tactic, he was beaten by Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton.
All three had battled for pole as normal and then started on softs.
Vettel believes the strategy was justified, and that his problems were losing time behind Nico Hulkenberg's Sauber in the first stint, and Alonso being simply quicker this weekend.
"Our strategy seemed to work today," the champion insisted.
"We knew it was crucial to get clear laps at the start, but we did not.
"I was behind Nico and if you follow another car too much it's bad for the tyres. It was hard to find the right compromise."
Asked if he believed victory was possible, Vettel replied: "I don't think so, I think Fernando was too quick here.
"If you look at the strategy, they started in clean air, they finished in clean air. I didn't.
"I'm not blaming anyone, it's just how it is when you start further back.
"We have to be fair, Fernando was too quick. But if you look at practice, he wasn't too far out of reach.
"With more clean laps at the beginning, we could have had a chance."
Vettel did not pit for softs until the final five laps. He fell from second to fourth, but was able to catch Raikkonen and Hamilton at a ferocious rate on his new tyres, missing the podium by only 0.2 seconds.
"The team obviously told me that there was quite a big gap, but there was also a gap to the car behind so why not [go for it]?" said Vettel.
"When I came onto the long straight for the first time and saw Lewis at the hairpin, I thought I was too far away, but we had more speed on the tyres.
"It's a little disappointing to lose out at the end. A few more corners and we could've tried something."
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