Red Bull had pulled off a masterstroke in pitting under the safety vehicle, giving their drivers the advantage of fresh tyres in a newly bunched-up field.
Verstappen's day was not done there, however.
"It's good to see all the times so close, but it means that we really need to bring our A game". It was also only Ferrari's second in Shanghai after Rubens Barrichello started the inaugural Chinese race from the front in 2004.
"We spent a bit of time during the first session today working on the setup of the auto in order to understand it better", explained Verstappen.
Nico Hulkenberg was sixth for Renault, ahead of Fernando Alonso's McLaren and an upset Vettel, whose championship lead has been cut to nine points.
Carlos Sainz in the other Renault was ninth with Romain Grosjean rounding out the top 10 for Haas.
However, whilst Hamilton will be hoping that both his and Mercedes fortunes improve going forward, Max Verstappen and Red Bull might just settle for a weekend where he makes headlines for the right reasons.
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Vettel clocked 1min 31.095sec at the Shanghai International Circuit in final qualifying on Saturday ahead of teammate Kimi Raikkonen. The front row lockout was their second in a row after Vettel beat Raikkonen to pole last weekend in Bahrain.
Ricciardo had been running fifth mid-race when the safety vehicle was brought out to clear up debris following a clash between the Toro Rosso drivers Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley.
Ricciardo's progress from that point was masterful.
Raikkonen looked like the faster of the two Ferraris up until the final sector of his final lap where he made a mistake at Turn 14 and lost pole position to a cleaner, more clinical lap from his teammate.
The duo were spotted talking not long after the race and Vettel has revealed the contents of that discussion.
The contrast between Ricciardo and Verstappen was stark. Surprisingly the gap back to Mercedes was half a second, and Vettel admits Ferrari was not expecting to hold such a margin. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas had looked much more competitive in warmer conditions during Friday practice and Wolff is confident the setup the cars will come good on Sunday after he team was caught out by cooler conditions on Saturday.
Hamilton, who will start on the soft tyres as will Ferrari, sounded less sure but hinted he would push to overtake. Marko, the man who oversees the career of every Red Bull driver through the junior ranks to F1, admitted after the race the Dutchman was pushing too hard.