The German finished the final race of the season sixth to become the youngest triple world champion in Formula 1 history. It was a far from routine race from Vettel however clashing with Bruno Senna on the opening lap and suffering damage to his car while he dropped to last place.
The track conditions were tricky in the opening stint with rain having started to drizzle just minutes before the start of the race. Lewis Hamilton was able to convert his 26th pole position to lead from Jenson Button at the end of the lap but there was lots of action behind the silver cars.
Vettel, starting fourth, was engulfed by the field off the grid with Nico Hulkenberg and the Ferrari’s making superb starts. Felipe Massa shot from fifth on the grid to fight into second momentarily but the focus of attention was on Vettel and his championship rival Alonso.
With the Spaniard into fifth the field contracted behind him and on the run down to turn four Vettel found himself in the midfield pack but the 24 year old showed little regard for his title prospects as he turned into the fast left hander.
Sweeping across the racing line Vettel drove across the front of Senna leaving the Brazilian with nowhere to go except into the back of the Red Bull. With Senna, and Sergio Perez, retiring on the spot and Vettel looking to have suffered extensive damage to his left rear quarter Red Bull held their breath as they waited to see whether Vettel’s would be able to continue.
Alonso was able to quickly overtake his teammate and Mark Webber in a thrilling move into turn one to take third and put himself into a championship winning position. One lap later however Alonso out braked himself into the same corner and had to use the runoff. The Spaniard was able to minimise the damage to just Hulkenberg overtaking him but already it was clear just how difficult the conditions were for all of the drivers with the sprinkles of rain falling heavier and the slick tyres clearly not the optimum rubber to be on.
As has been the case for much of his career Button was one of the few drivers able to tip toe around the damp track on slicks and still maintain tyre temperature. While the field pitted for intermediate tyres Button and Hulkenberg stayed out on slicks.
Mercedes were the first team to make the change as they tried to salvage their race after a disastrous opening stint saw Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg struggling. When they resumed after their stops Schumacher was a lap behind the race leaders but with Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel all pitting for inters the scene was set for an exciting middle stint.
While Button’s feel and awareness in such conditions is generally second to none by lap 18 it was Hulkenberg who was setting the pace. With the Force India flying Hulkenberg was all over the back of Button as he exited the final corner and into the Senna S he outfoxed Button and was able to outbrake his rival down the outside of the first corner.
With Hulkenberg and Button at the front the pair of slick shod cars were able to stay in front until the track conditions deteriorated and the intermediate shod drivers were able to slowly edge back into contention until suddenly the race leaders were two seconds off the pace.
It seemed inevitable that both would have to pit to hold onto their race leadership but just as suddenly as they had lost their pace the track conditions improved and once again the slick tyres were the ones to be on and Hulkenberg and Button were once again in the pound seats.
With a dry line now fully emerging it was clear that everyone would need to change for slick tyres. This rewarded Hulkenberg and Button with a huge lead for their gamble with the Force India driver starting to open a lead.
A track littered with debris however meant that it was always possible that a driver could pick up a puncture and when carbon fibre pierced Nico Rosberg’s right rear tyre it was inevitable that a safety car would be called out to clear the track.
When the order shuffled out behind the safety car Hulkenberg led from Button, Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, Kamui Kobayashi and Webber.
Kobayashi, likely in his last Grand Prix for the foreseeable future, charged through the pack with some trademark overtaking manoeuvres. The Sauber driver was hot on the heels of Alonso and was soon past the title contender and into fourth. There was surely some nervous looks on the Ferrari pit wall as they saw their customer ahead of their lead driver.
Behind Kobayashi and Alonso the fast charging Massa was recovering from a late stop for intermediates. The home town hero had stayed out on slicks but unlike the leaders he wasn’t able to maintain tyre temperature and suddenly lost all of his grip and had to make a pit stop. Unfortunately for the Brazilian however he pitted just minutes before the slick tyres were once again the tyres to be on.
This dropped Massa down the field but the safety car negated his need to stop for slicks once again and when racing resumed after the safety car he was immediately fighting with the cars around him. He fought past Vettel with the Red Bull driver having given him a wide berth before passing Kobayashi around the outside of one of the slow corners that litter the middle sector of the lap. Massa was now once again in a position to act as the rear gunner for Alonso.
At the front of the field Hamilton was quickly able to dispatch of Button and set his attention on Hulkenberg. The race leader however was comfortable at the front and seemed able to keep his pursuer at bay until rain started to spit once again.
On lap 49 the Force India driver touched a white line and half spun. The loss in momentum was enough for Hamilton to get back in front. It seemed as if Hamilton would end his McLaren career with another victory but just five laps later Hamilton’s season was over.
With the race leaders coming up to lap backmarkers Hulkenberg spotted a slightly hesitant Hamilton and dived down the inside into the Senna S. On a greasy track however the German slid slightly and his rear wheel made contact with Hamilton’s front suspension. The impact left Hamilton hobbled and forced to once again retire from a race by the hand of someone else.
Button took advantage of this to retake the lead with Hulkenberg rejoining in second. However the Force India driver would be punished with a drive through penalty for causing an avoidable accident. While it was clear that Hulkenberg was at fault for the accident it was a harsh penalty for Nico given the track conditions and that a fresh rain shower had clearly played a role.
This latest shower would grow in intensity and with the majority of the field now struggling on badly worn slick tyres they faced a tricky decision; stay on slicks or change to intermediate tyres.
When Vettel dived into the pits he opted for another set of dry weather slicks but when he returned to the track it was clear that he had made the wrong call. Within a couple of laps he was back in the pits for inters…except his Red Bull team had not expected him. The German’s pit radio was broken and he could only receive messages.
A lengthy pit stop put Vettel down the order once again but, as we’ve seen numerous times recently, he dug deep and battled through the pack to get back into a championship winning position and was running seventh behind Schumacher in the closing stages before overtaking his compatriot for sixth.
The final ten laps were filled with tension but little in the way of drama. Alonso was running second to Button but trailing the leader by over 20 seconds and relying on a mechanical problem for the McLaren driver if he was to win the title. Button was driving serenely and with Vettel running sixth the title was once again heading to Milton Keynes.
The race finished under safety car conditions following a heavy crash for Paul di Resta after the Scot aquaplaned in the final corner. Button was able to calmly finish ahead of Alonso and Massa with Vettel claiming the title having trailed Webber and Hulkenberg to the flag,
Schumacher’s career finished with a seventh position with Jean Eric Vergne, Kamui Kobayashi and Kimi Raikkonen rounding out the points paying finishers.
Outside of the points Caterham were celebrating finishing tenth in the Constructors’ Championship after an eleventh place finish for Vitaly Petrov allowed the team to snatch the crucial position. Finishing tenth is worth approximately $20 million in comparison to finishing the season as the eleventh ranked team. As a result it was of little surprise to see the celebrations for the team when the chequered flag fell. Petrov had overtaken Charles Pic just three laps before di Resta’s crash had neutralised the track.