Jenson Button won a thrilling Brazilian Grand Prix at Sao Paulo’s Interlagos circuit, ahead of the Ferrari’s of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.
But with Sebastian Vettel’s fighting drive to a well-earned sixth-place finish, Alonso’s second place was not enough to deny the German a third World title.
Vettel clinched the championship by just three points in what Red Bull team boss Christian Horner described as “the most stressful” race he’d been involved in.
For Vettel, the record books just keep tumbling. At the age of just 25, he is the youngest-ever triple World Champion and one of only nine drivers to have clinched the Formula One World Championship three times.
And off the back of his titles in 2010 and 2011, Vettel has joined an even more exclusive club of drivers to have won three World Championships consecutively. Only Juan Manuel Fangio (1954-57) and Michael Schumacher (2000-04) had achieved that feat previously.
A top four finish would have guaranteed Vettel the title. After the opening lap, it was obvious the task in hand was to prove one of his greatest challenges yet.
From fourth on the grid Vettel had a poor start, dropping down to seventh. Approaching turn four, it went from bad to worse for the German. Bruno Senna – whose uncle Ayrton had held the record for youngest triple World Champion – misjudged his breaking point on turn-in, slamming into the side of the Red Bull, spinning him round.
Cars dodged to the left and right as Vettel was left rolling downhill in reverse. Only until the last of the back-of-the-grid stragglers had past could the German spin around and set off in pursuit, in what was now a damaged car.
Meanwhile up ahead, Alonso was making the most of his championship rival’s misfortune.
From his seventh-placed grid slot, the Spaniard made up two places off the start line. A lap later, he made yet more ground, scything up the inside of Mark Webber’s Red Bull and team-mate Massa into turn one.
Whether he was aware of Vettel’s predicament or not, it was opportunistic driving from Alonso, who now found himself in the vital third place he would need to win the title, should Vettel fail to score.
The German, though, had other ideas.
With the track becoming increasingly slippery, Alonso chose to switch to intermediate tyres on lap ten. Vettel did likewise. In the absence of pit radio, Alonso would have been astonished to see Vettel in his mirrors as he exited the pits. Boy had Vettel made up ground.
Ahead of the two men in contention for the championship, Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and Jenson Button were driving superbly in the tricky conditions, notching up a huge lead over the rest of the field.
All that changed on lap 22, however, after the safety car was deployed to clear up dangerous amounts of debris scattered across the track.
Eight laps later, Hulkenberg led the field off the restart, with Button, Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel in hot pursuit.
On lap 31, Hamilton, in his last race for Mclaren, made a bold move on team-mate Button to take over second place. Then, on lap 48, Hulkenberg made a rare error, putting a wheel on a slippery white line, and Hamilton was into the lead.
It was a lead that lasted for just seven laps, though, as Hulkenberg spun into the British driver while attempting a re-pass into turn one.
Retirement in his final outing for the team which had nurtured him since he was thirteen was not the ending Hamilton would have wanted – or deserved.
All of this enabled Button to scamper clear into an unassailable lead. Behind the 2009 World Champion, Vettel’s dramas never ceased.
Wheel-to-wheel battles with the likes of Massa and Kamui Kobayashi continued. And then there was the weather, which changed almost as rapidly as the on-track combat the TV director chose to follow. One moment it was a pit stop for slick tyres. Three laps later, Vettel would be in for intermediates.
A small favour from Michael Schumacher – the man whom he admired so much as a young boy – was the only saving grace for Vettel on a day everything seemed conspired against him. The seven times World Champion – in his last outing for Mercedes before finally calling it a day – decided not to get involved in his fellow country-man’s charge for the championship and duly let him by for sixth place.
But even though Massa had let team-mate Alonso by for second place two laps earlier, seventh would have been good enough for Vettel.
“It is difficult to imagine what goes through my head now even for myself,” Vettel said. “I am full of adrenaline and if you poke me now I wouldn’t feel it.
“It was an incredible race. When you get turned around at Turn Four for no reason and it becomes like heading the wrong way down the M25 it is not the most comfortable feeling.
“I was lucky no-one hit me but the car was damaged and we lost a lot of speed, especially when it dried up. Fortunately it started to rain again and I felt so much happier.
“A lot of people tried to play dirty tricks [during the season], but we did not get distracted by that and kept going, and all the guys gave a big push right to the end.”
For Alonso, it was the second time in three seasons that a third World title had slipped from his grasp.
In 2010 a strategic error by the Ferrari team allowed Vettel to snatch the title in the Abu Dhabi season finale. This year, there is no doubt that Alonso has dragged a dog of a car that simply had no place to be in contention for the World Championship. But for being caught up in first lap accidents in Belgium and Japan, he would have won the title.
“When you do something with your heart and do it 100% you have to be proud of yourself and your team and we’ll try again next year.”