After 20 races on four continents over nine tense months, Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel beat Ferrari's Fernando Alonso to the title by just three points at the end of a wet Brazilian Grand Prix that will go down in history as one of Formula One's greatest races.
"It's unbelievable. A triple world championship, a triple double!" exclaimed Red Bull team boss Christian Horner after the race. "I think we're all absolutely shattered. I don't want to go through another race like that again."
Vettel started with a better grid position than Alonso. He was fourth behind teammate Mark Webber and the front-row McLaren pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. Alonso, by contrast, was down in seventh.
But the tables were turned just after the start, which took place in light drizzle. Alonso surged forward to battle with the leading McLaren drivers, and Vettel was caught in a funnel of cars into turn four and was hit hard by Williams' Bruno Senna.
He was pitched into a spin and suffered heavy damage to his left-hand sidepod. Remarkably, he was able to carry on, though he was rooted to the back of the field.
"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," Vettel said afterward.
Not to be denied, he began a fightback that saw him climb to seventh place by lap eight.
Ahead, Alonso was doing what was needed to get into title contention. To have any chance at taking his third world title, the Ferrari driver needed to score a podium finish and he quickly muscled his way through to third.
After doing all that good work, however, he lost the place to Force India's Nico Hulkenberg, who was thriving in the tricky conditions.
As the weather worsened, everyone except Button and Hulkenberg dived for the pits to take on intermediate wet tires and the courage the pair displayed in riding out the storm was rewarded. They soon established a massive advantage.
On lap 19, Hulkenberg did the unthinkable and beat Button at his own game of wet weather tire mastery. The German pounced into turn one and passed through the Senna S. It looked like the Force India driver might be on course for his and the team’s first victory in his last outing for the Silverstone squad.
In the title battle, things were becoming even more complicated for Vettel. Lacking pace, he found himself embroiled in a messy fight with Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi and, as the safety car came out so that debris could be removed from the track, the German found himself with yet another problem.
“Then we lost radio," he said. "Did the pit stop probably at the wrong time because I put on a set of drys and a lap later it started to rain, I came in and the inters weren't ready because I had no radio communication – the team couldn't hear me."
Meanwhile, Hulkenberg made a mistake to let Hamilton through to the lead and in attempt to fight back, the German then collided with the McLaren into turn one, bringing Hamilton's final race for the team to an emotional end.
The Force India driver was hit with a drive through-penalty for causing the collisions and slipped down the field.
That put Alonso third, with his Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa second. The Brazilian waved Alonso through with 10 laps to go.
Vettel, meanwhile, was seventh, which gave him the championship, but he pushed on to eventually brush past Michael Schumacher and seal sixth, finishing the last laps under the safety car that appeared when Paul Di Resta hit the wall two laps from home.
“We kept the car damage to a limit, but obviously we could see in the dry conditions later on that the pace wasn't there and I was really slow down the straights which made it very easy for others to pass us and very difficult for us to pass someone," Vettel said.
“We caught back up in the intermediate conditions,” he concluded. “Then to limp home under the safety car, at that moment I didn't know if it was enough. I was told a couple of laps before it should be fine but then I don't know ... then to get told was unbelievable.
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