Vettel keeps cool to fulfil destiny
Sebastian Vettel was choking back tears as he tried to respond to his team's congratulations after he won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to clinch an unlikely first world drivers' title. They were tears of disbelief as much as joy.
The German and his Red Bull car have been the fastest combination on the Formula 1 grid all year but a mixture of driver errors, mechanical failures and pure bad luck had meant that Vettel - who replaces Lewis Hamilton as the youngest world champion in history - had never led the title chase heading into the final race of the season.
Starting from pole position but 15 points adrift of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who was directly behind him on the grid in third place, the title looked a long way away for the 23-year-old.
But Vettel did everything he needed to do by driving a race of cool maturity as things began to unravel for Alonso and Ferrari almost from the start.
A lost place to Jenson Button off the line was a minor inconvenience for the Spaniard, but the title was lost with a catastrophic strategic call to mirror the decision of another championship protagonist, Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber, to stop early for fresh tyres.
It put Alonso back in the pack of midfield runners, breaking the cardinal rule of all F1 strategy moves - keep track position and if you don't make sure you have clear air in which to run at your maximum pace. Stuck behind Renault's Vitaly Petrov, Alonso had neither, and the Ferrari driver was at the mercy of Vettel's result.
Vettel did what he has proved more than capable of all year - made no mistakes when running in the lead, reeling off the laps to the chequered flag.
It was an incredible final twist to end an astonishing season, one that will go down as one of the greatest in F1 history.
It was the first time four drivers had ever gone into the final race all with a chance of the title - and a fifth, Button, was only knocked out of the reckoning seven days ago in Brazil.
What has made 2010 so compelling was to have so many superb drivers competing in cars that were relatively evenly matched.
For Alonso, Hamilton and Button, though, the season was always a rear-guard battle fighting a faster car in the Red Bull, and they were able to compete only because of the mistakes made by that team and both their drivers.
For all Vettel's stunning qualifying pace and coolness when leading, he is less convincing when not in first place.
He crashed into Webber while trying to pass him for the lead in Turkey, got a puncture at the start in Silverstone after making an ill-advised decision to sit it out around the outside of Webber at the first corner, and inexplicably rammed into Button after losing control behind him in Belgium.
His talent may still have some rough edges, but it is of the highest quality, and he has made a convincing case this season that he can now be considered in the same breath as F1's two benchmarks - Alonso and Hamilton.
Vettel shot to prominence in F1 with his performances for Red Bull feeder team Toro Rosso in 2008, culminating with a brilliant victory in the wet at the Italian Grand Prix.
Since then, he has displayed a darker side to his character, and the steeliness and ruthlessness all great F1 champions need has been fully in evidence this season as he and Webber have gone toe-to-toe at Red Bull and sparks flew.
It was obvious Vettel was going to be the man to beat this season from the moment he took pole for the first race of the season in Bahrain and led until a spark plug failure handed victory to Alonso.
Vettel lost another victory two weeks later in Australia thanks to a wheel-nut failure and had he won those two races perhaps the pressure would have been off and he would have led comfortably throughout the season.
Thankfully, for the sake of the championship battle, that is not what happened.
Two superb wet-weather wins for Button in the space of three races put him in the lead; Webber took over after dominating in Spain and Monaco; Hamilton took his place at the top after back-to-back wins in Turkey and Canada; Webber took it back; and then it was Alonso's turn after a quite superb late-season run of form.
As Vettel put it on Sunday: "All of us could write a book about races we should have finished in higher positions. We have all had so many ups and downs. It has been a tough season mentally to ignore what people were saying and always get your own thing done."
It has been an intensely competitive year and the pressure on everyone was huge throughout, but Vettel and Red Bull always had the consoling thought that they were the fastest thing on the grid.
Still, though, it had looked as if the drivers' title was going to slip through their fingers. And what appeared as if it was going to be the decisive turning point of the season occurred at the Korean Grand Prix two races ago, when Vettel - under intense pressure from Alonso - suffered an engine failure.
That put Alonso 11 points clear of Webber, and the manic cackle he gave over the radio at the end of the race - a mixture of joy, surprise and disbelief - summed up everything about the Spaniard's unlikely fightback from being 47 points off the championship lead after the British Grand Prix.
In Abu Dhabi, though, Ferrari again found themselves at the mercy of a faster car. Caught between deciding whether to cover Webber's early stop and Vettel disappearing up the road, Alonso's engineers chose what in hindsight was the wrong option. As Red Bull chief technical officer Adrian Newey said after the race, had Alonso stayed out, he would probably have finished fourth. Which would have made him world champion.
Alonso had been adamant before the race that this would have been a great season for him no matter what happened in the championship, and although clearly gutted he stuck to that line after the race.
"If we didn't stop, Webber would probably overtake us; if we stop, we let (Nico) Rosberg and Petrov overtake us," he said. "Very difficult call.
"Next year we try again. But it was [a] very good [season] for me, especially after two years of some difficulties, coming back to winning races, fighting for the championship in the last races.
Forget all the nonsense about team orders at the German Grand Prix, Alonso would have been a fully deserving world champion. In fact, no matter who won it there wasn't going to be a bad one in 2010 and in Vettel there can be no doubt that the sport has a good one.
This is a man who is going to be at the heart of F1 for years to come. There will be many more victories, probably many more titles. And at 23, who knows, even his friend Michael Schumacher's record of seven titles and 91 victories might be vulnerable.
To get there, though, he will have to beat the likes of Alonso and Hamilton, who are not going anywhere in a hurry, as well as Renault's Robert Kubica, a man who this year convinced even his doubters that he will be a major force once he gets his hands on a competitive car.
In 2011, the same top drivers will be with the same teams, and there is every reason to believe it could be just as good as 2010, perhaps even better.