When this season kicked off nine months ago in neighboring Bahrain, we knew it was going to be a close one. Ferrari had a two-time champion at the helm and a hungry wingman to match. McLaren had the reigning champions from the past two years in what was dubbed a "super team." Brawn GP was bought by Mercedes-Benz, which then brought the most successful driver in F1 history out of retirement. Meanwhile, Red Bull was riding the crest of a fairy-tale ascension that only narrowly failed to materialize the year before. Yes, we knew it'd be close, but not this close.
Heading in to the season finale this weekend in Abu Dhabi, the constructors' championship had just been decided, but the drivers' title was still up for grabs. And for the first time in sixty years of Formula One history, it was down to an unprecedented four drivers. Fernando Alonso looked poised to take his third title, but both Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel were still well in contention for their first, while Lewis Hamilton looked at slim – but still possible – chances at claiming his second. It was down to the line, and for all the marbles. Follow the jump to find out who was crowned champion, and how.
[Images: Luca Bruno, Ben Curtis, Gero Breloer/AP | Clive Mason, Vladimir Rys/Getty]
The stakes couldn't have been higher when the contenders lined up for qualifying on Saturday at the Yas Marina circuit. And when the dust settled, it could hardly have been any closer: Sebastian Vettel took pole for Red Bull as he'd been doing all season. Beside him was Lewis Hamilton. Championship frontrunner Fernando Alonso lined up right behind in third, with Jenson Button – any hope of defending his title by now completely dashed – right up there in fourth. Mark Webber was consigned to the third row in fifth, with Felipe Massa beside him in sixth. Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg and Vitaly Petrov rounded out the remaining top ten as the midfielders and backmarkers filled the remaining slots on the grid.
With the stage set, the lights flashed green and off they went. Fernando Alonso made his first mistake of the day trying to edge out Jenson Button, yielding his spot to drop to fourth off the line as Vettel led the McLarens into the first corner. But almost as soon as the race started, it was reined in again when Schumacher spun his Mercedes and Tonio Liuzzi nearly decapitated him with his Force India. The safety car was deployed and led the procession through an alternate corner for five laps before the mess was cleared and the race could get back under way.
Once it did, the German Nicos drew first blood as Merc's Rosberg passed Williams' Hulkenberg for P13. Meanwhile, farther up the field, Mark Webber ran wide exiting a corner and came into brief contact with the safety barrier. Fearing a potentially catastrophic right rear tire blowout, the Australian hopeful called in a pit stop that dropped him from fifth place to sixteenth.
Felipe Massa was the next to pit, also dropping into the teens as he rejoined behind Webber. The move was speculated as an attempt by Ferrari to let Massa keep Webber at bay, but if that wasn't failure enough, calling Alonso in as well sure was. The title leader dropped from fourth place to twelfth, while up front Hamilton stayed glued to the back of Vettel's Red Bull.
Twenty laps into the race, Vettel lead the McLaren pair of Hamilton and Button as Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi impressively outpaced himself in fourth. Renault's Robert Kubica was fifth, followed by Adrian Sutil (Force India), Sebastien Buemi (Toro Rosso), Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Nico Hulkenberg (Williams) and Vitaly Petrov (Renault) to tenth place. Alonso and Webber chased in eleventh and twelfth, with Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari separating them from Massa in fourteenth.
About half the field had made their mandatory pit stops at this point, with the top seven leading the charge of those who had yet to. Hamilton became the first of those frontrunners to pit around the halfway mark on lap 24, dropping from second to fifth. Vettel's pit stop came on the following lap, dropping from the lead to second as Button took over P1. Meanwhile Kubica finally got past Kobayashi for P3, and on the next lap Hamilton did the same for P4.
As the race came closer to the finish line, it became clear how vital a role Renault would play in deciding the title. Kubica kept Hamilton at bay in P3 and Petrov did the same with Alonso at P10. At this point, Vettel looked poised to claim the title, with Alonso in second, Webber third and Hamilton fourth in the standings. With so many cars yet to stop, however, and so many reliability factors in play, there were far too many wild cards in the deck to count it over just yet.
A bounding Kobayashi finally pitted on lap 34 to drop from fifth position to sixteenth, and Button followed a few laps later to hand to the lead back to Vettel and rejoin in fourth place. Kubica was now in second, followed by Hamilton, Button, Sutil, Buemi, Rosberg, Petrov, Alonso, Hulkenberg, Webber, Alguersuari and Massa.
Timo Glock spun his Virgin-Cosworth on lap 46 to join Schumacher and Liuzzi – and eventually Jarno Trulli, who retired his Lotus in the garage – as the only retirements of the day. But the more crucial move came the following lap when Kubica finally took his Renault in to pit lane. Leaving the track in third place, he rejoined in sixth, just ahead of his teammate Petrov and a frustrated Alonso, who could not manage to get around the Russian rookie.
Sutil finally pitted from P4 on lap 48 to rejoin in P12, but those were all the changes in store for the closing laps.
And so was crowned a tearfully jubilant Sebastian Vettel, the youngest world champion in Formula One history. Beside him on the podium stood F1's last two champions in their McLaren colors. The defeated Alonso was ultimately unable to get past those pesky Renaults with their superior engines – the same that propelled Red Bull Racing to both championships, and which will propel them again next season as they endeavor to defend their maiden crowns. When they do, there'll be no fewer than five world champions defending their honor against another hungry batch of hopefuls. Next year is looking good already.