Despite his current difficulties though, Hamilton only finds himself nine points behind Vettel in the championship, after the Ferrari driver could only finish eighth following his clash with Verstappen.
"It's like empires rising and falling and maybe Mercedes are on the wane and the new Ferrari era is about to come back".
The 52nd career pole for the German comes on the back of a strong run in Bahrain, where the team had the quickest auto over the weekend and they will be further buoyed by this performance It is their first pole in China since Rubens Barrichello was quickest in 2004 and the first time Mercedes have been beaten to the front of this grid here since 2012.
"I don't know if we can challenge, we're half a second behind today", the Briton told Sky Sports TV after aborting his final flying lap and taking fourth place on the grid with team-mate Valtteri Bottas in third.
Although he put up a fight against Ricciardo's passing attempt Bottas concedes there was little he could do with such a significant tyre disadvantage.
Sir Martin Sorrell steps down as WPP chief
As some of you know, my family has expanded recently, WPP will always be my baby too. "Good fortune and Godspeed to all of you". In a statement , he said it was "in the best interests of the business if I step down now".
"Yesterday, we were just not quite quick enough with the ultrasoft [tyres], so yeah, today we only used soft and medium and I think on the soft it was next to nothing, the difference to Ferrari. But it was definitely out of reach today". The Mercedes pair followed with Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton in third and fourth positions, respectively. Bottas, in fact, suggested it might be too much to make up on Sunday.
"Nothing really happened", he said, when asked how he had lost out in the final sector. "We can see it, especially in very long corners". Nor was it for Raikkonen, who improved his provisional pole time only to have it snatched away in heart-breaking fashion at the death by teammate Sebastian Vettel. Should he win here it will be his 50th career victory, putting him behind only Michael Schumacher, Hamilton and Alain Prost. "We started the weekend positively in practice, but the vehicle went away from us today, the pace just wasn't there". Mind you, the Australian nearly didn't make it out for qualifying after engine failure in FP3, which was followed by a last minute engine swap.
"It was clear that the Red Bulls were faster", said Vettel. "I don't think so", said Verstappen.
Saturday qualifying was chilly and windy, and damp in places from overnight rain.
But pushed on whether he needed to turn the aggression down, Verstappen said: "It is easy to comment".
Hamilton is being hopeful.
Mercedes were expected to dominate the 2018 Formula 1 season after showing ominous pace during the pre-season tests in Barcelona, and Red Bull were considered their closest challengers, while talks were about Ferrari having taken a step back since last season.