SEBASTIAN Vettel put in the drive of a lifetime at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to rescue what could have been a catastrophic blow to his 2012 F1 championship chances.
Fighting from the back of the pack, making an extra pit-stop and changing his front wing, the reigning world champion finished an incredible third behind Kimi Raikkonen and fellow title rival Fernando Alonso, meaning he loses just three points to the Spanish racer, and takes a 10 point lead into the final two races.
Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber also had an eventful day, but one that didn’t see him home to the finish line after he got entangled in the coming together between Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez on lap 39.
The most dramatic scenes of the weekend though unfolded after qualifying had finished on Saturday. Having put in the third fastest time, Vettel was told to immediately stop the car before returning to the pits, with his team claiming he had a fuel pump problem.
However, the stewards’ investigation found that less than a litre of fuel was left in the car when he was told to stop – an infringement of the rules – and he was made to start from the pit lane.
Webber, starting second, got a terrible start off the line, losing places to Raikkonen, Pastor Maldonado and Alonso in the opening laps.
Vettel meanwhile had to negotiate his way through traffic. His race could have been ruined before it even really got started when he tried a daring overtake on both Bruno Senna and Charles Pic, with the former clipping the Red Bull front wing and damaging it.
Carrying on, he made up ground under the safety car when Nico Rosberg and Narain Karthikeyan crashed spectacularly, though he stopped to change his damaged nose.
Early leader Lewis Hamilton then pulled off the track with an electronics failure as Webber began to find himself in the wars.
First, he tried an ambitious move around the outside of Maldonado but didn’t give the Venezuelan, colliding with him forcing him into a spin. He then tried a similar move on Felipe Massa, which resulted in the Australian skipping a chicane to pass him, barging back onto the track and forcing Massa into a spin to avoid an accident.
But his race came to an end on lap 39 when he tried to avoid the crash happening in front of him, but he couldn’t miss Romain Grosjean who destroyed Webber’s rear suspension and wing.
“Nothing really worked out for us,” said Webber afterwards. “I think we were strong, but we never got free air and it’s difficult here with traffic; we saw quite a few incidents where people were trying to pass.
“Ultimately, in the incident that ended my race, I tried to go down the inside when the cars ahead made contact,
“I thought there was an opportunity, but then Grosjean made contact with my car and that was the end for us. Whatever we tried today, it just wasn’t working out.”
All this promoted Vettel further up the order, and with his rivals all pitting for new tyres, he found himself running second behind Raikkonen.
As the Lotus pulled away, Vettel headed to the pits for the second and final time, dropping him to fourth behind Jenson Button. But on newer tyres, he made it around the McLaren to secure the final podium spot behind winner Raikkonen and Alonso in second.
It means although his lead closed by three points, he still remains on top of the pile by 10 points with two races to go.
He said: “It was a good race for us, a big chance for Ferrari and Fernando, but we didn’t allow it.
“I enjoyed it a lot today, more than anything. I damaged the front wing pretty early with Bruno, which was not ideal, but we were able to carry on and not lose too much.
“It was the worst time to have to pit from P13 and start again at the back of the field, then I had to do it all over again, passing everyone from the back. In the end, to finish third on the podium is just fantastic.”
Team boss Christian Horner added: “He drove an unbelievable race today and his final move on Jenson was quite exceptional. To go from pit lane to podium was something we could only dream of before the race.
“For Mark, unfortunately after not a great start, he got involved in an incident with Maldonado that spun him around and cost him time, just as he was looking to come back at Fernando Alonso. He recovered well and we made our stop, which was the fastest of the day and got him ahead of Maldonado who he was racing at that stage.
“Then, as he was closing down on the cars ahead, an incident with Perez, Grosjean and Di Resta left him with no where to go and unfortunately he was a victim of their actions.
“Nonetheless we leave with important points for the Constructors’ and Drivers’ titles today and everything still to play for in two weeks time.”