An engine problem in qualifying left Vettel at the back of the grid and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who was due to start second behind Hamilton, did not make the start, also hit by engine failure. "He (Hamilton) has more to lose than me in the championship so I went for it in turn one and from there I could do my own race".
Max Verstappen dominated the race after relieving pole sitter Lewis Hamilton of the lead early on.
It's been a remarkable turnaround from his disappointing start to the season at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, where he retired midway through the race with mechanical problems.
Mercedes had struggled all weekend to make their auto work at Sepang, and despite starting and leading away from pole position, Hamilton was passed by Verstappen on lap 4 and eventually finished in second place, 13 seconds behind the Dutchman. The Ferrari driver, who started alongside Hamilton on the front row, had been hoping to challenge for victory at a track where he scored his first Formula One win in 2003.
"Probably if you look at the real pace today, it would have been P5 (fifth place)". But I think globally that we don't have the best auto and we've done an exceptional job with what we have. I think it is the first time I have been able to do so in my career.
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"We're going in the right direction and getting faster and faster, the auto is really good". Vettel started from the back of the grid, but managed a fourth place finish. But just as he closed within a second of Ricciardo and a place on the podium those tyres gave up on him and he was forced to see out the race behind his former teammate at Red Bull.
Hamilton came second to extend his drivers' championship lead to 34 points over Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.
The Dutchman is already the F1's youngest ever driver to win an F1 race at the Spanish GP in Barcelona past year. "It was the best I could really do", he said. They fixed it quickly and it's a shame I couldn't get out - but we go tomorrow'.
"I think the car's going very well but they tried to fix it and then obviously had some problem".
Meanwhile Vettel insists he is confident of reeling in Hamilton after Ferrari proved they have the fastest vehicle heading into the final five races.