Vettel and Red Bull redefine perfection
Sebastian Vettel climbed slowly up on to the nose of his Red Bull and, for the first time this year, raised two of those trademark index fingers in the air. That's two to indicate he is now a double world champion - the youngest in Formula 1 history.
It was appropriate, then, that the first man to congratulate him in person after the race was the driver who previously held that honour - Fernando Alonso, who finished second to McLaren's Jenson Button and ahead of Vettel in a captivating Japanese Grand Prix.
Third place was more than enough for Vettel to seal the crown with four races still to go. And if he seemed less emotional than he did after winning his first title in last year's nail-biting finale in Abu Dhabi that is almost certainly because this one has seemed inevitable since as long ago as the first qualifying session of the season in Melbourne's Albert Park seven months ago.
That was when the sheer, breathtaking pace of his Red Bull car - and the German's mastery of it - first became apparent.
What followed has been domination of the like not seen since Michael Schumacher and Ferrari in 2002 and '04 - the last time an extravagantly talented German was in a team whose resources, applied with ruthless efficiency, outstripped their rivals', and whose focus was primarily on their lead driver.
Vettel has won nine of 2011's 15 races so far, and taken 12 pole positions. His career victory total stands at 19. He could very well be on pole for and win every remaining race this season, which would raise his career wins total to 23.
That would leave only Juan Manuel Fangio, Niki Lauda, Jim Clark, Alonso, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher ahead of him. Rarefied company indeed.
Many of his victories this year have followed a simple formula - put the fastest car in the field on pole, use its pace in the early laps to build the gap required to ensure he cannot be passed by a rival at the pit stops, then ease off and maintain that advantage.
It was a strategy demanded by this year's new-look F1, for which new supplier Pirelli were asked to design deliberately delicate tyres to provoke better racing and more pit stops.
The German was praised for understanding very early on how to get the best out of those tyres. Undoubtedly he did, especially compared to team-mate Mark Webber, who also bore the brunt of the Red Bull's early-season reliability struggles with their new Kers power-boost system.
But it's impossible to judge whether Vettel was doing this better than leading drivers in other cars - and the main reason he was able to approach races in the way he generally did was that rivals McLaren and Ferrari produced cars that were not on a comparable level to the Red Bull.
How much better than its rivals was the Red Bull? That no other car has been on pole position pretty much sums it up - not even Schumacher and Ferrari managed that.
It was Vettel's running start to the season that killed his rivals - after six wins and two close second places in the first eight races, a second title already looked inevitable.
The Red Bull's advantage was often less dramatic in races than in qualifying - largely because of the tyres - and it was not always the fastest race car. He had to work for his wins in Spain and Monaco, where luck also played a major part in him beating Alonso and Button.
After that incredible early run, though, a mid-season wobble of sorts did give his rivals hope that the championship battle was not completely over.
Vettel was beaten by a rampant Alonso in Britain, following a one-off ban of a key aerodynamic technology called off-throttle blowing of the diffuser. And he produced comparatively weak performances in Germany and Hungary, although still finished fourth and second.
It was enough for Alonso, Button, Hamilton and Webber to head into the summer break still harbouring hopes of making a fight of it.
These were crushed in merciless style by consecutive victories in Belgium and Italy, perhaps Vettel's best of the season so far. After that, another win in Singapore took him to the brink, and the inevitability duly became reality at Suzuka on Sunday.
The weekend in Italy provided an illustration in microcosm of the foundations of Vettel's championship victory.
His breathtaking single-lap pace was demonstrated by qualifying on pole by a massive margin, and his sky-high confidence - founded on that speed - informed what team insiders admit was a risky decision to run a short seventh gear.
It was made in the pursuit of ultimate pace, but Vettel knew that the straight-line speed deficit it would give him could lead to a very difficult afternoon if he lost the lead from pole position - as indeed happened thanks to an electrifying start by Alonso.
Vettel then demonstrated his confidence in a very different way with a stunning overtaking move - around the outside of one of F1's toughest competitors at 200mph, with two wheels on the grass.
The Monza weekend also underlined how much Red Bull's performance this year has been rooted in a less glamorous, but no less important, requirement for F1 success - hard work.
On pole by half a second, Vettel was still at the track at 11pm the night before the race, poring over the data with his engineers, ensuring no stone was left unturned in their endeavour to win the following day.
While Red Bull had the fastest car, benefiting from chief technical officer Adrian Newey's unrivalled genius for aerodynamic design, their teamwork and work ethic were unsurpassed.
At the same time, there were a number of races - one thinks of Australia, Monaco, Canada, Belgium, Italy, Japan - where McLaren could have made life harder for Vettel only for the team or a driver (usually Hamilton) to make a mistake.
Vettel, though, rode his advantage in style to put together one of the most impressive seasons by a driver for years.
That he did so in a golden age in terms of depth of talent is all the more noteworthy. But while the combination of Vettel and Red Bull has been peerless in 2011, it would be wrong to assume the world champion is without rival as a driver.
While he is clearly out of the top drawer, it remains the case that, until he goes up against another great in an equal car, his absolute potential is hard to judge.
And an unscientific straw poll has revealed that most in F1 still believe Alonso to be the world's best driver, even if Vettel is widely thought of now as next in line.
Despite Button's superb season, Hamilton continues to be regarded as the other member of the 'big three' but his shaky season has meant his stock has fallen, and Vettel's stunning qualifying performances mean many now consider him, not the Englishman, to be the fastest man on the grid over one lap.
Put someone that good in a car as fast and reliable as this year's Red Bull, and have it run by a team as professional and slick as they have been, and the result is inevitable.
For the others, the gauntlet has been well and truly thrown down.