Jenson Button triumphs in the rain on a day of high drama
Sebastian Vettel finished only sixth in a dramatic climax to the Formula One season in Brazil, in which title rival Fernando Alonso finished second to winner Jenson Button, but it was enough to make him a triple world champion.
Light rain at the start, and heavier precipitation later on, rendered this one of the most exciting races of the season, and another triple champion, Brazil's Nelson Piquet, was moved to describe it as the best race he had ever seen on the Interlagos track.
Even before the start there was massive emotion on the grid, from Michael Schumacher preparing for his 306th and last grand prix to Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg as they awaited final outings with their respective teams before going elsewhere next year.
It began with Hamilton leading Button away from the front row, and local hero Felipe Massa jumping up to third to commence a supremely tactical race for Ferrari as they fought a desperate rearguard action to prevent Vettel's seemingly unstoppable progress to the title.
Tantalisingly, it all seemed to go wrong for Vettel at the fourth corner, when his Red Bull was truck from behind by Bruno Senna's Williams, which then took out the Brazilian's team-mate Pastor Maldonado and Sauber's Sergio Perez.
For a moment, Vettel faced half the field heading straight towards him, but was fortunate that they all avoided him. As Hamilton and Button duelled for the lead, he embarked on his second major comeback drive in three races. For the time being Alonso, whom Massa helped into third place by the third lap, held the title in his hand.
The weather gods did not make life easy for the drivers. Button quickly slipped ahead of Hamilton on the sixth lap, was repassed, then made the move stick on the eighth, and now the decision was whether to stay on Pirelli's slick tyres, or to opt for the intermediates. Button, and Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg who had risen to third when Alonso had a minor off-course moment in the fifth lap, elected to stay out, as Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel all pitted on the 10th lap. That triggered some wholesale pit stopping all down the field. But as conditions improved a little, they fell 40 seconds or more behind the two leaders.
On the 18th lap the unthinkable happened, as Hulkenberg slipped his unfancied Force India past Button for the lead. It was a sweet moment for the German, whom McLaren had rejected in favour of Perez as Hamilton's replacement. That must have given the McLaren chief executive, Martin Whitmarsh, something to think about, especially as the Force India car uses McLaren's rear-end technology.
The complexion of the race changed five laps later, however, as the safety car was deployed until the 29th lap as debris from the first-lap incidents was cleared away. Ironically, as that threw Vettel the same sort of lifeline that had been so helpful in Abu Dhabi, it was Alonso who had been most vocal about theses dangers after seeing Nico Rosberg's Mercedes sustain a rear tyre puncture.
Thus the 40sec advantage was neutralised. Worse still, Button had grained his front tyres while running slowly behind the safety car, and as Hulkenberg sprinted away when racing resumed on the 30th lap, he fell prey again to Hamilton. The latter set off after Hulkenberg, and finally got ahead of him on the 48th lap when the German almost spun. In his final race for McLaren, Hamilton seemed set for another victory.
Conditions were worsening, however. On the 54th lap Kimi Raikkonen slid off the track and then had a lot of trouble finding his way back on. As Hamilton and Hulkenberg came up to lap him, Heikki Kovalainen and Timo Glock just ahead of the Finn were locked in battle. Hamilton lost suffricient time for Hulkenberg to get a run on him across the start/finish line, but when he tried to dive down the inside going into the first corner, he spun and hit the McLaren hard enough to put it out of the race.
Button moved back into the lead in the melee, and Hulkenberg dropped back after a tyre stop and then having to pit again for a drive-through penalty.
Now Button's silky smooth driving style came into its own as he tiptoed round on the ice-rink surface. Further back, Massa duly surrendered second place to his team leader even though, for the third time in four races, he had the pace to stay ahead. But as Mark Webber kept fourth ahead of the recovering Hulkenberg, Vettel moved up to catch and pass Schumacher for sixth. Barring disaster, that was sufficient to make him champion again by three points.
Thus it transpired, even though a heavy crash for Force India's Paul di Resta on the 69th lap triggered another, brief, safety car intervention. That ensured that the field crossed the finish line under yellow flags, and thus a gripping season reached its dramatic conclusion. When the stewards confirmed that Vettel had not transgressed on the ninth lap, when it appeared he had passed Kamui Kobayashi's Sauber under a yellow flag, Red Bull were able to celebrate as Button and McLaren savoured victory.
There were no tears this time for Alonso, as there had been in 2010 in Abu Dhabi. He knew that victory had been a dream rather than a likelihood, and that once again it had not come true.