Formula One race director Charlie Whiting said the error was caused by simple miscommunication between the official starter and crew in the starter's tower, which resulted in model Winnie Harlow - a friend of Mercedes world champion Lewis Hamilton - waving the flag prematurely.
Brazilian soccer great Pele famously reacted too late when Ferrari's Michael Schumacher won at Sao Paulo's Interlagos circuit in 2002, brandishing the flag instead as the later finishers appeared.
The top three kept their positions from the start, with Vettel leading from pole position ahead of Bottas and Verstappen. Under the rules, the 70-lap race was cut short to just 68, though it didn't impact the result of the race among the points-scorers.
He attempted to pass Bottas at the first corner, but avoided contact with the Finn, and then kept him honest throughout the race, crossing the line less than one second behind the Mercedes auto. I don't think anyone wants to be cheated of that.
The balance of the Ferrari wasn't right, Max Verstappen set the pace for Red Bull and Vettel brushed the wall at the end of practice one then sat out the first 34 minutes of the second session while waiting for the vehicle to be repaired.
"I was quite happy with my first run in Q3 but I knew there was something more in the auto for the first part of the lap", Vettel continued. "Even on fuel consumption, they were going like hell all through the race so I think we have to work really hard now".
Rafael Nadal defeats Dominic Thiem, wins his 11th French Open title
The first set had taken 57 minutes, in stiflingly humid conditions, but there was to be no let-up for the underdog in the second. That was swatted away with Nadal's double-handed backhand, though, and the second set duly went the way of the favourite.
All this left Vettel in command after 40 laps, 5.7 seconds clear of Bottas with Verstappen third ahead of Ricciardo, Hamilton and Raikkonen. In the Constructors' Championship, Mercedes leads with 206 points, Ferrari is second with 189 points and Red Bull is third with 134 points.
"We all know they (Ferrari) have generally had a slightly better package all round, they've been doing a slightly better job so we've got to do more", the Briton told reporters.
New Zealand driver Brendon Hartley crashed out early driving for Toro Rosso after he was invloved in a collision with Williams driver Lance Stroll in the opening lap of the race. Both cars were badly damaged but the drivers escaped uninjured. "We need to review procedures and make sure we have a very simple procedure for every circuit". He earned his first Formula One points with a ninth-place finish at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve a year ago.
McLaren's Fernando Alonso chalked up 300 career grands prix but the Spaniard had little to celebrate as the two-time world champion's day came to an early end, his McLaren coasting to a stop midway through the race with a mechanical failure.