In addition to being behind the two Mercedes, Vettel was also outpaced by Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen but the championship leader remained positive it would all come together for him on race day.
Ricciardo and Verstappen, the latter a sensational maiden victor in Barcelona a year ago, might have to wait a little longer to make a lunge at the race lead, however, with engine supplier Renault delaying its latest power unit specification until July due to reliability concerns.
Few had tipped Ferrari to be in race-winning contention this season, but the four-round extra-European prologue to the 2017 F1 season was a finely balanced fight between the Scuderia and three-time constructors champion Mercedes.
Lewis Hamilton has said he believes his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, is a genuine contender for the Formula One world championship, after the Finn won the last round in Russian Federation.
Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen is fourth, ahead of Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, who past year won in Barcelona to become F1's youngest race victor at age 18.
Verstappen's biggest incident of the afternoon was a slide and trip through the gravel at Turn 9 early on, which the team attributed to a gust of wind.
"I don't know who brought the most updates, I don't think it matters who brought the most, I think it matters who brought the best". "It's a good feeling for everyone when these upgrades work".
"This inter-team battle is a totally different situation than what we have seen over the last three years. If you look race by race, and overall, they've been dominant and it's hard to beat that, but we're doing our best".
But Bottas, who joined Mercedes from Williams in January as replacement for retired 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg, is the best bet to continue the streak of different winners in Spain even if he has yet to finish higher than fourth there.
"I'm not happy", Vettel said.
Hamilton won here 2014, but his first-lap collision with Rosberg past year knocked both out of the race and marked a low point in their contentious partnership.
"We expected Valtteri to develop through every single race and step up his performance and he's shown that", Wolff said.
Asked who he would like as a team-mate and whether he would welcome the return of his predecessor, Fernando Alonso, now with struggling McLaren, Vettel grinned: "In the end of the day, I'm signing my contract".
More liquid poured from the auto as it was taken away by the tow truck.
Vettel did not want to talk up his early advantage over Hamilton, though he did insist all the pressure is on Mercedes to maintain their stranglehold on the sport.
Bottas said: "It took some time to properly realise I won the race".
But Hamilton arrives at the fifth race of the season facing new challengers from both within and without.