Vettel grew up idolising his fellow German Michael Schumacher, who won five of his seven Formula 1 titles with Ferrari, and went some small way to emulating him by securing victory for the Italian team at Sepang in only his second race for them after a frustrating final year at Red Bull in 2014.
The win was no fluke either as the four-time champion finished 8.5 seconds clear of 2014 championship winner Lewis Hamilton, whose Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg was a further four seconds back.
Vettel was reduced to tears as the German and Italian anthems played and he later said: “This feels incredible.
“When I was on the podium, to look down and see the guys, it was an incredible atmosphere.
“I can only recall from the victories Fernando [Alonso] had with Ferrari, and recall especially the victories Michael celebrated with the team – I think there were one or two! – it’s incredible.
“To become part of that team is something special. It makes me very happy, obviously.
“Last year was tough, with this the first win for more than a year now. I definitely missed it, not just the champagne, but the top step in particular.
“So it’s great to come back after a tough season last year where I just didn’t get on top of the car, but this one suits me and has come my way.
“This win, it has been my dream. When I grew up, Michael was my hero and for all of us – I speak for all of the kids at the go-kart track at the time in Germany – we were looking up to him.
“When he turned up every year and to look after us a little bit, it made our lives.
“So, that’s why I think today…I probably don’t understand yet how special it is. Very, very emotional.”
Mercedes, for all their dominance of late, did not have an answer to Ferrari in Malaysia, who were more comfortable on their tyres in the searing 30-degree heat, and a match pace-wise.
After Mercedes’ easy one-two a fortnight ago in Australia arguably no one saw this coming, but now the German giants have a fight on their hands to hold on to the constructors’ and drivers’ championships.
The win was Ferrari’s first in 35 grands prix, stretching back to the 2013 race in Spain when Alonso – now with McLaren – was at the wheel.
Vettel added: “I shouldn’t say it, but I was s****ing myself the last couple of laps because this thought was coming into my head.
“I was looking at the top of the chassis and thinking ‘This is a red car, you’re about to win’. Then I thought ‘Okay, stop thinking that, otherwise you’ll miss the next apex or something’.
“So it was really a great relief when I crossed the chequered flag and saw the guys [cheering on the pitwall].
“It was a really special day and a big thanks goes to all the mechanics and engineers, and all the team in Maranello.
“There are a lot of people there, and a lot of potential and power going into the project.
“We have made a massive step over the winter and it’s their victory today.” Team-mate Kimi Raikkonen could arguably have joined Vettel in the top three but for a lap-one puncture, with the Finn ultimately finishing fourth.
Behind Williams duo Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa in fifth and sixth, Max Verstappen created F1 history by becoming the youngest person to score points at the age of 17 years 180 days by claiming seventh in his Toro Rosso.
As for Alonso, what must he be thinking after quitting Ferrari last year to join struggling McLaren? In his first race for the team he retired after 21 laps with an ERS cooling problem.
Team-mate Jenson Button retired 21 laps later with a turbo issue, leaving neither of the team’s cars classified for the first time since the 2006 United States Grand Prix.
Although three laps down, Manor’s Roberto Merhi saw the flag, a triumph for the team who unfortunately had to withdraw Will Stevens ahead of the race after failing to fix a fuel pressure problem.