Germany’s Sebastian Vettel sobbed with joy after becoming Formula One’s youngest world champion on Sunday with a pole to flag victory in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The 23-year-old Red Bull driver lapped up the pressure under the Yas Marina floodlights to chalk up his fifth win of the season while Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, the pre-race favourite for a third title, struggled home seventh.
Vettel, adding the drivers’ crown to the constructors’ championship won the previous weekend in Brazil, ended up with 256 points to Alonso’s 252 after winning in Abu Dhabi for the second year in a row.
The youngster had started the day 15 points behind the Ferrari driver, with much of the build-up dominated by speculation about whether he would allow Australian teammate Mark Webber pass him for the title.
In the end, Webber finished eighth and was third overall.
“Thank you boys, unbelievable,” gasped Vettel over the team radio, the tears flowing behind the visor after he took the chequered flag.
Team principal Christian Horner and owner Dietrich Mateschitz, bursting with pride, spared him no emotion: “You are the world champion. Enjoy it. You are the man,” Horner bellowed from the pit wall.
“I love you,” answered Vettel, who had not led the championship before Sunday but saved the best for last.
He broke down again in the post-race news conference when he contemplated the greats he had joined: “To be on the list with [Ayrton] Senna, Michael [Schumacher], those two guys is… I don’t know,” he said, before his lips wobbled and he was speechless.
Alonso, who was the overall leader before the start and had King Juan Carlos of Spain drop by to wish him luck on the starting grid, paid the price for an early pitstop that dropped him to 13th.
The Spaniard then spent lap after lap trying in vain to find a way past Renault’s steely Russian Vitaly Petrov while Ferrari held their breath and hoped for the rookie to make a mistake under pressure. It never happened.
“It’s critical to pass, I know you are doing your best,” team boss Stefano Domenicali told him over the radio as early as lap 16.
“Use the best of your talent, we know how big it is, use it,” implored his race engineer Andrea Stella 26 laps later with just 13 remaining and the title hopes trickling away into the night.
“This is sport, this is motor racing, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. After the race it’s always better to see the better strategy. Petrov was very aggressive. Next time we’ll try again,” said Alonso afterwards.
Vettel, asked jokingly whether he might be Petrov’s main sponsor next year, thanked the Russian, whose future in the sport remains uncertain. “Hopefully he will be around next year,” he smiled.
Webber had been the first of the contenders to pit, triggering Alonso’s fateful decision to follow him in and keep him covered, and he also became bogged down in traffic in a race full of frustration for the 34-year-old.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, the previous youngest champion who had to win in Abu Dhabi to have any hope of a second title, finished runner-up on the night and was first to congratulate Vettel.
Team mate and outgoing world champion Jenson Button took third place — three champions standing together on the podium and setting up a 2011 season with a total of five on the starting grid.
While Vettel celebrated, seven times world champion Michael Schumacher’s comeback season ended with a smash on the opening lap when his Mercedes spun and was speared by Force India’s Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi.
The great, who last stood on the podium as a Ferrari driver in 2006 and is the only other driver to have won the title for Germany, was fortunate to escape serious injury as the car ploughed into the side of the stationary Mercedes and rode up over the airbox just behind Schumacher’s head.
The safety car was immediately deployed and stayed out for four laps.
The crash at least allowed Schumacher to watch his compatriot’s drive to glory.
“I’m quite happy for him, we are good friends. It’s been a tough year for him. He deserves this championship. he is a great talent and a fantastic guy as a human,” he said. – Reuters