The grand prix at Interlagos proved to be one of the most dramatic in the sport's history as the destiny of the title swung one way and then the other between the Red Bull driver and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso.
The wet conditions in Sao Paulo played havoc, resulting in a catalogue of incidents, not least Vettel dropping to last place after the first few corners following a collision with Williams' Bruno Senna which almost put him out of the race.
But through the drizzle, light rain, then heavy rain and multiple pit stops, it was Vettel, 25, who emerged a champion, coming home sixth to finish just three points ahead of Alonso in the overall title race. The Spaniard, 31, could do no better than second behind race winner Jenson Button, his third victory of the season, as McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton crashed out in his final race for the team.
Vettel is now the youngest driver to become a triple Formula One world champion and only the third – alongside Schumacher and Juan-Manuel Fangio – to win three in a row.
"It's difficult to find the right words – correct me if I'm wrong but there are only two other guys who have done that before," said Vettel.
"One of the great things about Formula One is that you can compare your time and era to 10, 20, 30 40 years before. We are in Sao Paulo where Ayrton Senna was born and is buried, so to come here and win… I don't really know what to say. You have to be in the right place at the right time, but you have to create your own luck for what is coming up. To come here and win the championship for a third time... it's not sunk in."
Going into the race with a 10-point advantage over Alonso, Vettel recovered from an astonishingly bad start during which he was tagged by Bruno Senna, sending him into a spin and facing the wrong way.
The incident sent him to the back of the field and at one stage his voice was heard on the team radio seemingly cracking with emotion, perhaps fearing his hopes of history were disappearing.
The information from Red Bull was that the damage to the floor on the left-rear of his car was not reparable, but crucially he could continue in the race. "It's very difficult to find the right words because everything that could go wrong did go wrong," added Vettel "Imagine being the wrong way round on the first lap at turn four, but we kept the car damage to a limit.
"Then we lost the radio, then I did a pit stop at the wrong time. It was all so unbelievable, and with the conditions as well. So to be told I'm champion again was unbelievable, but unfortunately the guys couldn't hear my answer because the radio was broken."
Alonso did his best to take advantage of Vettel's difficulties and was helped into second place by team-mate Felipe Massa, but he was unable to snatch the title away from the German. "I feel very proud of my team and of the season we have had," said Alonso. "We have lost the championship now, but not here in Brazil, instead it was in some other races [Belgium and Japan when he was involved in first-corner accidents].
"When you do something 100 per cent you have to happy and proud for the team, and we will try again next year. It was one of the most difficult races we have ever driven.
"There was a big risk of crashing or having an accident, which we could not afford because we needed a podium finish to have any chance.
"We started seventh and finished on the podium one more time which can only be achieved by perfection from the team. We came here hoping for a little miracle, and we had this little present of fighting for the title through to this race. It didn't quite happen."
Button was full of admiration for Vettel's achievement. He said: "Congratulations to Sebastian. Winning three in a row is very impressive."
Formula One success: Multiple champions
Drivers who have won three or more consecutive F1 titles:
Michael Schumacher 2000-2004
Juan Manuel Fangio 1954-1957
Sebastian Vettel 2010-2012
Drivers who have won three or more F1 titles:
Michael Schumacher 1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004
Juan Manuel Fangio 1951, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957
Alain Prost 1985, 1986, 1989, 1993
Jack Brabham 1959, 1960, 1966
Jackie Stewart 1969, 1971, 1973
Niki Lauda 1975, 1977, 1984
Nelson Piquet 1981, 1983, 1987
Ayrton Senna 1988, 1990, 1991
Sebastian Vettel 2010, 2011, 2012
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