Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel became Formula 1’s youngest triple world champion at the age of 25 after a wet and chaotic Brazilian Grand Prix won by McLaren’s Jenson Button behind the safety car.
The German, needing only a fourth place to join the greats as the first driver to win his first three titles consecutively, finished sixth after fighting back with a damaged car from last on the opening lap.
It proved enough after his only title rival Fernando Alonso, needing victory, crossed the line in second place in his Ferrari with his Brazilian team-mate Felipe Massa third.
Vettel, who ended the season with 281 points to 278 for Alonso, later said it had been the toughest race of his career.
Alonso would himself have become the youngest triple champion at 31 had the result fallen his way.
Red Bull had already won the constructors’ title for the third year in a row.
“It’s very difficult to find the right words, especially after the race today,” said Vettel. “I think everything that could go wrong, went wrong.
“To limp home, under the safety car, I didn’t know if it was enough. We had to really fight until the end.”
It had seemed the gods were on Alonso’s side almost as soon as the starting lights went out.
Vettel was squeezed from fourth place, fell back into the pack and was caught in a collision with Brazilian Bruno Senna’s Williams that spun him around helplessly.
“There is visible damage, it is not the front wing, we cannot fix it,” he was told on his radio as he rejoined the chase with the whole race ahead of him.
Alonso, who needed to make up 13 points in the standings, looked like he could steal it as the championship pendulum swung both ways over the 71 laps at Interlagos.
The safety car was deployed twice, there were crashes, collisions, botched pitstops and constant uncertainty about the weather with occasional rain but not the torrential downpour many had feared.
“We lost the championship before today, not in Brazil,” said Alonso, who agreed with others that it was one of the hardest races he had ever driven.
“It was a lot of risk every lap to crash. We could not afford that for sure because we needed a podium finish to have any chance so it was a very delicate situation.”
The final drama was caused by Scotland’s Paul Di Resta when he span his Force India at the end of lap 70 in the heavy rain.
He crashed into a wall on the final turn, so bringing out the safety car for a second time and effectively ending the race.
Button, who also won the first race of the season in Australia, took his career tally to 15 wins.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton had led from pole position but could not shake off his team-mate, who made a wise decision to do a long first stint on slicks along with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg.
Hamilton’s last race for McLaren before he joins Mercedes ended when he and Hulkenberg collided on lap 54 as they came up to lap back markers. The German, who had led for much of the race, skidded into the blameless Hamilton. He was able to rejoin but was given a drive through penalty that ended his podium hopes.
Australian Mark Webber finished fourth, ahead of Hulkenberg in fifth in his last race for Force India before moving to Sauber.
Seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher took seventh place for Mercedes in his last race in Formula 1.
Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne was eighth, Kamui Kobayashi ninth and Kimi Raikkonen tenth. Schumacher moved over to allow his friend and compatriot Vettel to take sixth and join him as one of only three drivers to win three titles in a row.
The two Germans embraced each other at the finish, with Red Bull staff swiftly donning “V3ttel” T-shirts as the champagne celebrations kicked off, with Vettel also making a point of hugging Alonso and Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali.
“I’m finishing off and he’s clinching his third title. I’m very proud of him and he’s a good friend of mine and lets see what happens in his future,” said Schumacher.
Out of the points, Caterham celebrated 11th place for Russian Vitaly Petrov that lifted them back ahead of Marussia into 10th place overall in the championship – a finish worth millions to the team in prize money.
“Disappointed doesn’t even come close,” said Marussia principal John Booth.