Vettel, who starts his 100th race this weekend, set a time of 1:38.125 to top the time sheets.
The session began on an incredibly slippery circuit, with Kamui Kobayashi barely troubling an apex on his first flying lap.
The track slowly rubbered in, but still caught several drivers out, most notably at the penultimate corner.
Nico Hulkenberg spun a couple of times and he was joined by Mark Webber and Heikki Kovalainen in pirouetting at the new track.
Lewis Hamilton spent much of the session at the top of the standings, before being eclipsed by Vettel.
Vettel's time was 1.4s quicker than Hamilton, who in turn was 0.8s ahead of Fernando Alonso.