Rain has also been forecast for the afternoon's second free practice.
When the cars did finally creep out, puddles made the going treacherous but Lewis steered his Mercedes to the quickest time of one minute, 48.719 seconds. "I lost the vehicle", said the Spaniard over the radio before climbing out of the wreckage unhurt.
"The results were not the best the last couple of races but I think we are strong so we have all reason to be confident", said Vettel, who finished fourth in Malaysia last weekend from the back of the grid.
The Briton leads the world championship by 34 points after he eked everything out of his vehicle to seal second place in Malaysia last weekend despite both Ferrari and Red Bull being faster around Sepang.
"It's been an interesting day", the points leader said.
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Stroll was the only driver to fall prey to the conditions, sliding off the track after hitting a patch of water at Turn One and narrowly avoiding a crash. I think overall the vehicle is working and it's up to us to improve.
The Briton spoke on Thursday of preparing for "war" in his battle for the championship he now leads by 34 points - and it may turn out to be a fight on two fronts as the Red Bull was also quick.
Ferrari team mate Kimi Raikkonen was the only other driver to join Vettel, Hamilton and Ricciardo in breaking 1:30, despite complaining of overheating brakes. It could and should have won the race relatively comfortably.
Overall it was a largely inconclusive day because each team can never be sure on a Friday just what engine settings and fuel loads rivals are running, and besides the rain there was another disruption in the morning when 16 minutes of the session were lost when Carlos Sainz crashed his Toro Rosso very heavily on the exit to the hairpin.
Esteban Ocon swept to P7 for Force India ahead of Renault's Nico Hulkenberg, while Romain Grosjean and Stoffel Vandoorne completed the top 10 for Haas and McLaren respectively, pointing to another tight midfield battle at Suzuka.