The Finn would have got past Vettel anyway, had a rear wheel issue during his pit-stop not prevented him from doing so.
After Hamilton's dominant pole position in the Australia season-opener, Ferrari defeated Mercedes in three consecutive qualifying shoot-outs before this weekend.
New kid on the block Charles Leclerc offered a balanced view which nicely sums up the situation - "As a driver, I love going as quick as possible, so going 1.5 seconds slower isn't something I will like".
"We couldn't make the tyres last", said Vettel.
Ferrari acted quickly to bring in Vettel as they looked to make gains with the rest of the field speed-restricted, but he was held up by Sergio Perez in the pit lane, limiting the benefits of the move and leaving the 30-year-old to miss out on the podium.
"It wasn't an option to stay out", he said.
"But we could easily go to the next race and struggle and be nowhere".
"As everyone knows, its extremely hard to overtake here and I could always put pressure on him when we needed - but you need such a big gap between the pace to get through".
Vertappen held off Vettel for a first podium finish of the season despite damaging a front wing when he ran into Lance Stroll's Williams after the virtual safety auto restart. Ricciardo ended up a distant fifth, the last driver not to go a lap down.
The leading cars navigated the opening metres without drama before the error-prone Romain Grosjean, once labelled a "first-lap nutcase" by Mark Webber, lived up to that title by sparking a huge crash after he lost control of his Haas at Turn 3 and slid back across the track in a cloud of tyre smoke.
Lap 7/66 The stewards will investigate Grosjean for that incident after the race. The Spaniard has scored in every race so far.
See the final word on all the Spanish GP action and latest F1 talking points on the next edition of the F1 Report!
Ferrari, who had been very strong in qualifying for the past three races, could not quite find the improvement they needed in Q3 and Vettel did well to be within one-tenth of Hamilton. F1 bosses are working on technical tweaks to boost overtaking for the future.
"The best ones are very sensitive and fragile and that is something we know and he knows", Wolff said.
A circuit design has already been released, although it hasn't won many people over.
"We do after the five races now have a much, much better understanding of the vehicle, of what we need to do to get the auto to be working - but we still have learning to do, improvements to be made".
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