ABU DHABI // Sebastian Vettel became Formula One's youngest ever champion Sunday, taking advantage of Fernando Alonso's disappointing performance to clinch the title with a win at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The German Red Bull driver started the race from pole position but needed to make up 15 points on Alonso, who led the championship but failed to secure the title for a second straight race.
While Vettel had a fairly trouble-free race, Alonso finished seventh after Ferrari made an ill-advised decision to pit early and the Spaniard got stuck behind Nico Rosberg and Vitaly Petrov for nearly 40 laps.
Vettel's title comes after Red Bull dominated the field in qualifying sessions all season, but often failed to convert its unrivaled speed into race victories because of reliability problems and driver errors. "It has been an incredible journey, to lead the championship after the last race is unbelievable," Vettel said. "It's been extremely intense and a tough season mentally."
Alonso, who started third from the grid, ended up four points behind Vettel in the final standings.
Vettel said he had a few nervous moments after crossing the finish line, while he waited to see whether Alonso could climb up to fourth place on the last lap - which would have given the Spaniard the title.
But the celebrations could finally start when he received the message he was hoping for.
"Weltmeister!" Vettel's team screamed over the car radio after Rosberg crossed the line in fourth place, using the German word for world champion.
"Unbelievable! Thank you," Vettel replied in a strained voice, barely able to speak because of the emotion, as Red Bull engineers and crew threw themselves into each other's arms.
"To be honest I didn't know anything," Vettel said, explaining that he had no idea what the situation was behind him during the last 10 laps due to a glitch on the race radio.
Alonso couldn't hide his disappointment, shaking his fist angrily as he pulled up alongside Petrov when they glided over the line. "Next year, we'll try again," Alonso said.
Red Bull's Mark Webber of Australia came in behind Alonso and finished third overall, 14 points back from his teammate Vettel.
The 23-year-old Vettel is six months younger than Lewis Hamilton was when he won the title in 2008. Hamilton beat defending champion Jenson Button as McLaren took second and third place in the race.
For the first time in F1 history, four drivers were in contention for the title heading into the last GP, with Hamilton finishing 16 points behind Vettel in fourth overall.
"We've seen an incredible tight (championship), I don't know how many times we've had a different leader," Vettel said. "In the beginning we thought Ferrari's dropping back, but they fought back very hard. All of us can write a book about where we could have finished higher in races."
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How they fared in Abu Dhabi:
1. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull
2. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren
3. Jenson Button, McLaren
4. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes
5. Robert Kubica, Renault
6. Vitaly Petrov, Renault
7. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari
8. Mark Webber, Red Bull
9. Jaime Alguesuari, Torro Rosso
10. Felipe Massa, Ferrari
11. Nick Heidfeld, Sauber
12. Rubens Barrichello, Williams
13. Adrian Sutil, Force India
14. Kamui Kobayashi, Sauber
15. Sebastien Buemi, Torro Rosso
16. Nico Hulkenberg, Williams
17. Heikki Kovalainen, Lotus
18. Lucas di Grassi, Virgin
19. Bruno Senna, HRT
20. Christian Klien, HRT
21. Jarno Trulli, Lotus (retired)
22. Timo Glock, Virgin (retired)
23. Michael Schumacher, Mercedes
24. Vitantonio Liuzzi, Force India
1. Sebastian Vettel (Germany) Red Bull 256
2. Fernando Alonso (Spain) Ferrari 252
3. Mark Webber (Australia) Red Bull 242
4. Lewis Hamilton (Britain) McLaren 240
5. Jenson Button (Britain) McLaren 214
6. Felipe Massa (Brazil) Ferrari 144
7. Nico Rosberg (Germany) Mercedes GP 142
8. Robert Kubica (Poland) Renault 136
9. Michael Schumacher (Germany) Mercedes GP 72
10. Rubens Barrichello (Brazil) Williams 47
11. Adrian Sutil (Germany) Force India 47
12. Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber 32
13. Vitaly Petrov (Russia) Renault 27
14. Nico Huelkenberg (Germany) Williams 22
15. Vitantonio Liuzzi (Italy) Force India 21
16. Sebastien Buemi (Switzerland) Toro Rosso 8
17. Pedro de la Rosa (Spain) Sauber 6
18. Nick Heidfeld (Germany) Sauber 6
19. Jaime Alguersuari (Spain) Toro Rosso 5
20. Heikki Kovalainen (Finland) Lotus 0
21. Jarno Trulli (Italy) Lotus 0
22. Karun Chandhok (India) HRT 0
23. Bruno Senna (Brazil) HRT 0
24. Lucas Di Grassi (Brazil) Virgin 0
25. Timo Glock (Germany) Virgin 0
26. Sakon Yamamoto (Japan) HRT 0
27. Christian Klien (Austria) HRT 0
1. RedBull - Renault 498
2. McLaren - Mercedes 454
3. Ferrari 396
4. Mercedes 214
5. Renault 163
6. Williams - Cosworth 69
7. Force India - Mercedes 68
8. BMW Sauber - Ferrari 44
9. Toro Rosso - Ferrari 13
10. Lotus - Cosworth 0
11. HRT - Cosworth 0
12. Virgin - Cosworth 0
The youngest champions in F1:
2010 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany) - RedBull 23 years and 135 days
2008 - Lewis Hamilton (Britain) - McLaren 23 and 301 days
2005 - Fernando Alonso (Spain) - Renault 24 and 59 days
1972 - Emerson Fittipaldi (Brazil) - Lotus 25 and 274 days
1994 - Michael Schumacher (Germany) - Benetton 25 and 315 days
1975 - Niki Lauda (Austria) - Ferrari 26 and 198 days
1997 - Jacques Villeneuve (Canada) - Williams 26 and 201 days
1963 - Jim Clark (Britain) - Lotus 27 and 189 days