McLaren driver Jenson Button won a pulsating final Formula 1 race of the season, but it was Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel who stole the headlines at the Brazilian Grand Prix by becoming the sport’s youngest-ever triple world champion after finishing sixth in Sao Paulo.

The race, which was run in the wet, damp and dry at various times, was full of drama, as Vettel recovered from a first-lap clash that dropped him to last position and climbed back through the field, while title rival Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) made the most of a fast start, great pace and the misfortune of others to finish second.

Out at the front, Button, team-mate Lewis Hamilton and Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg all showed superb pace in the damp, with all three taking turns in the lead. By staying on slicks while other runners pitted for intermediates, Button and Hulkenberg pulled out a huge lead, with the German passing the Briton after a long duel, but their advantage was undone by a safety car period.

With the field bunched up, Hulkenberg pulled away, with Hamilton passing Button and giving chase. A mistake from Hulkenberg let Hamilton through, but the Force India driver clung on and made a move at two-thirds distance as they lapped traffic. However, he lost control in the damp conditions under braking and slid in to Hamilton. The Briton, in his final race for McLaren, had to retire, while Hulkenberg got a drive-through penalty.

Heavy rain then threw in another curveball, with Vettel stopping early for tyres only to find his pit crew weren’t ready. However, he quickly climbed to sixth, which was enough to earn him the title from Alonso, who had tenaciously climbed up to second position, ahead of his rapid Ferrari team-mate, Felipe Massa.

The race then came to a slightly premature end as Paul di Resta (Force India) crashed heavily on the pit-straight kink and brought out the safety car with a lap to go. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) finished seventh in his final-ever F1 race.

"Inside the car, when you get turned around for no reason, it's not the most comfortable feeling," said Vettel, in reference to his first-lap contact. "I was quite lucky that nobody hit me from that point onwards. I think it was the toughest [race we had], but we kept believing and remained ourselves."

Reflecting on losing the title by three points, Alonso said, "There's been situations during the season that make you think of these three points, but that's the sport. Even though I finished second in the points, I have never had such respect and affection from everybody in the paddock.

"This is the first time that I have got drivers, ex-drivers, teams, fans to say that we have done the best championship. We'll be back as strong in 2013, because it would be harder to be stronger. I have a great feeling after 2012, by far the best year of my career."

Brazilian Grand Prix:

1 Jenson Button (McLaren-Mercedes) 1h 45m 22.656s2 Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) +2.754s3 Felipe Massa (Ferrari) +3.615s4 Mark Webber (Red Bull-Renault) +4.936s5 Nico Hulkenberg (Force India-Mercedes) +5.708s6 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull-Renault) +9.453s7 Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) +11.900s8 Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso-Ferrari) +28.600s9 Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber-Ferrari) +31.200s10 Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus-Renault) +1lap EtcFastest lap: Hamilton, 1:18.069

World Championship standings

Drivers:1 Vettel 281; 2 Alonso 278; 3 Raikkonen 207; 4 Hamilton 190; 5 Button 188; 6 Webber 179; 7 Massa 122; 8 Grosjean 96; 9 Rosberg 93; 10 Perez 66. Etc.

Constructors: 1 Red Bull-Renault 460; 2 Ferrari 400; 3 McLaren-Mercedes 378; 4 Lotus-Renault 303; 5 Mercedes 142; 6 Sauber-Ferrari 126; 7 Force India-Mercedes 109; 8 Williams-Renault 76; 9 Toro Rosso-Ferrari 26. Etc.

All results unofficial