On the track he knew exactly what to do. He needed only fifth place to secure himself his fourth consecutive world championship, but instead he made it three wins in three Indian GPs as he triumphed for the sixth time in a row and the 10th this year.
Then he broke the rules by doing a series of spectacular doughnuts, which earned him a €25,000 fine, before throwing his gloves to the appreciative fans, bowing low to Heidi – his affectionate name for his Infiniti Red Bull RB9 – then standing with his arms raised aloft and only cheers, not boos, ringing in his ears.
But outside the cockpit he faltered as he tried to describe the emotions welling within him. “You’ve done it in style, Seb, fantastic!” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner had told him on his slowing-down lap. “You are a four-time world champion, you’ve joined the greats. There’s Fangio, Schumacher and now Vettel. Alain Prost took a while longer to win his four. I’m unbelievably proud of you.”
His voice thickening, Vettel had paid tribute to his crew, who were also celebrating a remarkable fourth-in-a-row constructors’ title. “I don’t know what to say, I feel completely empty. I’m so proud of you all, I love you guys. Thank you!”
Later, swigging from his victor’s magnum of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge, he savoured one of the best wins of a career that has brought him equal status with the sport’s greats. He had taken an immediate lead from pole position and was 2.4 seconds ahead of Felipe Massa, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton by the end of the first lap. By the end of the second he was 17th, after stopping in the pits to discard Pirelli’s less durable soft-compound tyres for a set of longer-lasting mediums.
As team-mate Fernando Alonso had already seen his skeletal title chances evaporate after a collision, Massa led until his stop on the eighth lap. That put medium-shod Webber into the lead and, as expected, the race developed into a duel between the two Red Bull drivers on their different strategies. Bit by bit, as they traded fastest laps, Vettel got a 14.5sec gap down to 10.4 by the time Webber stopped for a brief mandatory stint on the soft tyres on the 28th lap. Vettel then made a very fast stop for more mediums on the 31st lap, before Webber switched back to mediums on the 32nd.
Now they were on similar tyres, 12.5sec apart, with Vettel leading. But one minute Webber was keeping his team-mate honest, the next his alternator had failed on the 39th lap. Later Vettel’s sole concern came when he was instructed to stop using his drinks bottle and not to engage the KERS system, as the team advised him not to take any more energy out of the car than was absolutely necessary.
Behind him, Rosberg brought his Mercedes home a distant second, as Japanese GP star Romain Grosjean put in a blinding single-stop drive for Lotus to take third ahead of Massa, McLaren’s Sergio Perez and Hamilton. Grosjean’s team-mate Kimi Raikkonen faded from second to seventh after a 53-lap stint on the medium tyres obliged him to make another pit call two laps from home.
It was Vettel’s shining hour (and 31 minutes), however. After calling his family he tried to marshal his feelings. “I’m speechless,” he said. “I can’t find the words to describe the emotions. I’m overwhelmed and don’t know what to say. I’m getting older but to achieve so much in such little time is very difficult to grasp. To join people such as Fangio and Schumacher and Prost is very difficult for me to put into perspective. I’m way too young to understand what it means. Maybe if I live to be 60 I will, and by then nobody will care! It’s difficult to realise that this is something that nobody can take away from you.”