A potentially anti-climactic Formula 1 title race got turned on its head on the first lap on Sunday at the Interlagos Circuit. And for a moment, it looked like Fernando Alonso would be able to complete an incredible comeback.
Alonso entered Sunday's finale 13 points behind Sebastian Vettel for the title. Alonso started seventh, and Vettel fourth. On the first lap of a damp start, Alonso charged up to fourth, while Vettel slid back a bit and found himself three-wide with Bruno Senna to his inside.
Senna and Vettel made contact, destroying the front end of Senna's car and sending Vettel around for a spin. And then Vettel was hit again for good measure. Senna was unable to continue, and it looked like Vettel was going to be forced to retire or, at the very least, limp his way through the next 70-plus laps hoping for Alonso to fail.
There was significant damage to the diffuser on Vettel's left side (which is located in front of the rear wheel), but there was no tire puncture or suspension damage. After Vettel got his car pointed in the right direction and back up to speed, he started working his way back through the field.
As the rain continued to fall, teams were forced to put on the intermediate rain tires, though some waited longer than others. The two that lasted the longest on slick tires were Nico Hulkenberg and Jenson Button, who by virtue of not pitting, had a 43-second lead over the rest of the field in the slippery conditions.
Had the race gone caution free, that significant advantage (barring a catastrophe for either driver) meant that Alonso, who ran in fourth, would likely do no better than third. Vettel was just a few positions back, enough to maintain his edge. But the caution flag flew for debris -- yes, those happen in F1 too, though not nearly as often -- erasing the the monster gap. Alonso had his chance.
He moved up to second thanks to a crash in the first turn between Lewis Hamilton, driving his final race for McLaren before moving to Mercedes, and Hulkenberg, but Button, who won the race, was long gone. Alonso needed Vettel to fall back. He didn't.
Vettel and his damaged car finished in sixth, while Alonso maintained second. Vettel won the championship by three points for his third consecutive title.
While the 25-year-old's performance this season wasn't as dominant as his 2011 one where he won 11 times and finished on the podium all but twice, Vettel won five times (including four straight) and finished on the podium 10 times in a 2012 that featured eight different winners.