The German ultimately finished top of the time sheets after clocking one minute 19.815 seconds, but in what was one of the season's most intense qualifying sessions, Lewis Hamilton of McLaren-Mercedes led for the majority of the session before finishing just 0.163secs behind.
Jenson Button, Hamilton's teammate, will start Sunday's race from third.
Red Bull Racing, having had chinks in their impervious armour exposed in recent weeks, by rivals McLaren and Ferrari, had broken the paddock curfew on Friday night preparing their cars for qualifying. Regulations state teams are prohibited from working on cars between 2am and 8am, but the Austrian team's engineers did not reach their hotel until 5am. Each team is allowed four exemptions in cases of exceptional circumstances.
Vettel said his performance yesterday was "the best way to say thanks".
"Straight away I noticed the difference and was happier," said the 24-year-old world champion, who appeared subdued at the track during Friday's two practice sessions.
"If you are happier, it's usually because the car is better, and if you feel confident then you are also able to get more out of yourself. You are more consistent. That is very important for the race."
Vettel dominated for much of the first half of the season, but Saturday's performance was his first pole in three qualifying sessions since their rivals have show signs of a mid-season resurgence. Hamilton, who claimed his second race win of 2011 last week at the Nurburgring, said he was unconcerned by being usurped late in the day and remained confident this weekend can still be deemed successful.
"I can't complain," said the Briton. "We've come off a good race in Germany, we've come here and it's very similar to how competitive we were there, so that's a positive. It's also a positive to have Jenson up here with us, and we can hopefully challenge Sebastian."
Button, who is competing in his 200th grand prix, said he is considering nothing but victory. "Obviously, I'm going for the win," he said. "It's a big day for me, and hopefully it's going to be a good one."
Mark Webber, Vettel's teammate at Red Bull, finished a lowly sixth, while Felipe Massa of Ferrari out-qualified his stablemate Fernando Alonso - winner at Silverstone earlier this month - for the first time this season.