• Sebastian Vettel drove a masterful race from start to finish to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Picture: AP
Vettel surpassed the record previously held by Lewis Hamilton when the Briton set the benchmark in 2008, by 166 days. But perhaps even more astonishing is that up until yesterday, when it mattered most, Vettel had not led the championship at any point all season.
"This morning I got up and tried not to think about anything, tried to avoid contact with people too much, just try to do my own thing," said the German, soaked in champagne and struggling to contain his emotions. "We have only led this championship once and when it mattered. I am speechless."
Vettel had started the last race of the season 15 points behind Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, the favourite to become the youngest triple champion, and eight behind his own Australian teammate Mark Webber.
He knew he had to win and, recalling Raikkonen's incredible comeback for Ferrari from 17 points down with two races remaining, hope for the best.
"I didn't know anything until I crossed the chequered flag," he said as the Red Bull team celebrated a title double after their constructors' championship success in Brazil last weekend. "The last ten laps I was wondering as my race engineer, every lap, was trying to give some advice and trying to help me carry the car home. I was thinking 'Why is this guy nervous? We must be in a bloody good position'.
"Crossing the line he came on the radio very silently and said 'It is looking good, but we have to wait until the cars finish.' I was thinking 'What does he mean?' and I hadn't seen the screens. I just wanted to make sure, not get any distraction, just focus on myself. Then he came on the radio and screams at me that we have won the World Championship."
Team principal Christian Horner filled the airwaves with equal jubilation after holding his breath for the last few laps.
Vettel, who has set a string of records since he arrived in Formula 1 as a fresh-faced teenager, cried through his visor. Then, out of the car, he talked and talked. He mentioned Red Bull, engineers, mechanics, the factory workers, friends in his home town of Heppenheim.
"I don't know what to say. Surely I will find some reasons to keep on talking forever. It is unbelievable," he said. "Yesterday I went to bed and kept thinking about the race and what might happen and had some good imaginations and always a good feeling for some reason. But then I thought 'Now you have to sleep, you have to forget and just fall asleep.' Finally it worked.Took a while and I woke up and felt good but it was extremely tough today to keep the head cool."
Appearing on the podium flanked by the previous two champions, Britain's Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, Vettel asked them: "How did it feel, was it also that strange?" He said: "I guess it will sink in when I finally go to sleep but I think we will have daylight before that happens."
Growing up in the era of Michael Schumacher, the seven times world champion who ended his comeback season with a first lap crash on Sunday, Vettel is steeped in Formula 1. He watched as a child and has a strong sense of its history. "We have one guy in the team who knows all the world champions every year since 1950. Just ask him the year and he gives you the World Champion," said the latest champion.
"To be on that list now with drivers like (Ayrton) Senna, Michael (Schumacher), those two guys, I mean I don't know," he said before faltering, his lips quivering with emotion. "I was actually thinking about Kimi's situation today," he added. "Like Kimi or not - some people do, some don't - I think it was a little bit of a similar situation.
"Obviously what he achieved three years ago was very special. No-one thought it was possible and he proved us wrong but circumstances were special, same as today."
Alonso, meanwhile, was left ruing Ferrari's botched tactics that cost him a shot at his third F1 world title. Team principal Stefano Domenicali and his posse of strategists on the pit wall made a hash of their battle plan, resulting in Alonso missing out on the championship by four points to Vettel.
Alonso had gone into the race knowing he only needed to finish fourth should Vettel win. After dropping to fourth at the start after being passed by Button, Ferrari bizarrely opted to cover Webber's early stop, even though the Australian was behind in fifth place. The move relegated Alonso into the midfield pack from where he was frustrated by Renault's Vitaly Petrov as the Spaniard spent 40 laps behind the Russian.
Alonso, who finished seventh, said: "It's a shame to get to the end of the season and then miss out on the title at the final moment. Everything went wrong today, from the start to the strategy. With hindsight, it would have been better not to pit so soon."
Webber followed Alonso home in eighth place, with Petrov in sixth behind Robert Kubica in fifth, and Mercedes GP's Nico Rosberg in fourth.