Ferrari swapped its drivers' positions during the race after Leclerc passed Vettel after a great start from the 21-year-old in Shanghai. Ferrari asked Vettel whether he could lap quicker than Leclerc with his team-mate ahead of him, and at the time, the four-time world champion thought he could.
But Vettel then apologised after the race for a case of misjudgement on his part.
"Sorry for the first stint," Vettel said at the FIA press conference following the race. "I thought I could go quite a bit faster. I felt I was faster in the car. I was asked if I can go faster. I answered that I felt I can. I was a bit surprised when I was in free air, not surprised, but I was struggling a bit to put the laps together.
"Once I found the rhythm, I think I was able to chip away but obviously the objective was to try and catch Mercedes at that point obviously the gap was already quite big."
Ferrari have imposed team orders on its drivers in the opening three races of the season, but this was the most extreme yet. Vettel slammed some of the media's coverage of Scuderia's tactics.
"I knew at the moment it was happening that I would have to face these questions," Vettel said. "I'm not sure I want to answer because I'm a little bit against the way that you, all of you work because you take bits out of answers here and there and put it into the wrong light.
"So, if you ask me again in half-an-hour in the paddock, maybe I'll give you a straight answer and you don't write it down. It seems the way that not maybe all of you, but some of you are working."