SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Sebastian Vettel found himself spinning around on the track just after the start, watching helplessly as other cars whizzed past him. His Formula One title hopes seemed to be drifting away with them.
It was only the start of Vettel's problems Sunday in what he called the toughest race of his career. But he overcame all of them and walked away with the only prize that mattered -- his third straight championship title.
Vettel shook off a first-lap crash and other difficulties to finish sixth at the Brazilian Grand Prix, good enough to protect his lead over challenger Fernando Alonso and become F1's youngest three-time champion at age 25.
"It's very difficult to find the right words, especially after the race today," he said. "Everything that could go wrong went wrong."
Jenson Button of McLaren won the race at Interlagos, with Alonso second and Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa third. Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, F1's most successful driver, finished seventh in his final race after 19 seasons.
But they were all overshadowed by Vettel, who had to overcome a poor start, the early crash, a damaged car, a broken radio, a botched pit stop and pouring rain to capture the championship title.
"Just look at the stuff that went wrong. It was for sure the toughest race," Vettel said. "We kept believing. It was never game over."
Vettel appeared to be in big trouble when he was bumped shortly after the start and spun. He dropped to last place before he could turn his car around and begin a difficult pursuit. But he steadily worked his way up the field despite a slightly damaged car and no radio communication.
"You are the man, you are a triple world champion," a team official told Vettel on the radio after he crossed the line, without being able to hear the driver's response.
Vettel is the first driver with three titles in a row since Schumacher won five straight from 2000-04. The only other driver to win at least three consecutive championships was Juan Manuel Fangio from 1954-57.
"It's unbelievable," Vettel said. "It's still full of adrenaline. Incredible race today."
Schumacher was the first to congratulate Vettel, having just bid his own farewell to the sport. Minutes before the race, he lapped the track with a flag with the words "Thank You" written on it. He used the radio to thank the mechanics and engineers he has worked with, as well as his fans watching on television.
The 43-year-old German is retiring for the second time after struggling in his return with Mercedes. He had ended his career following the 2006 season and managed only one podium finish after retuning in 2010, at the European GP in July.
Schumacher is leaving F1 with numbers unmatched by any other driver. He retires with the most wins (91), pole positions (68), fastest laps (77) and most podium finishes (155).
Vettel needed to finish fourth or better to clinch the title regardless of Alonso's result. The Spaniard, who needed to finish on the podium to have a chance of overtaking Vettel, looked to have the advantage after a superb start and a chaotic first lap, but in the end couldn't erase Vettel's 13-point lead in the standings.
Lewis Hamilton was leading in his final race with McLaren when Nico Hulkenberg crashed into him while trying to pass on a slippery track with 17 laps to go. Hamilton received a standing ovation from his McLaren team when he returned to the garage.
"I feel a bit numb," said Hamilton, who will replace Schumacher at Mercedes next season. "It's been a day of mixed emotions. I'm sad that I didn't finish the race, but I'm excited about the future."
While the race was filled with drama and potentially title-deciding swings, it had an anticlimactic finish behind the safety car after Paul Di Resta crashed just before the final lap. That meant Vettel could simply cruise safely toward the title.
It rained on and off throughout the race, making conditions difficult and forcing drivers to come in and out of the pits several times.
"It was more or less was what we wanted, mixed conditions and very, very difficult race," Alonso said. "It was one of the most difficult races we ever drove. You feel you are with the wrong tire every lap. It was a risk to crash and have an accident on every lap. Obviously you are not in control of what your rivals do. We were hoping for a little miracle."
And for a while, they had reason to believe in one.
Alonso moved from seventh to fifth after the first corner, while Vettel dropped from fourth to seventh. Vettel then was hit from behind by the Williams of Bruno Senna and spun at the end of the back straightaway, dropping to last place after sitting backward on the track with several cars having to go around him.
"I had a lot of cars coming and I was in the wrong way," Vetter said.
Moments later, Alonso passed Massa and Vettel's Red Bull teammate Mark Webber at the same time to move to third.
But the Spaniard lost a position after locking his front tire and briefly running off the track at the first corner. Vettel began making his way back to the front, easily passing the slower cars near the end of the pack. He was already in sixth by lap 15.
Alonso briefly had the title in his hands again after more rain fell with 14 laps to go. Red Bull lost time while putting the wet tires on Vettel's car, dropping him to 11th place while Alonso moved into third.
"The (tires) weren't ready because we had no radio communication, they couldn't hear me," Vettel said.
But after all cars pitted, Vettel was back in sixth place. Alonso moved to second after passing Massa, but he needed Vettel to drop a few more spots to take the title.
Hamilton started from the pole and kept his spot for a few laps before being overtaken by teammate Button on the sixth lap, and Hulkenberg got past the British driver on Lap 18.
Hamilton retook the lead with 22 laps to go, but was hit by Hulkenberg when the Force India driver came in too hard to make the pass.
Vettel got off to a slow start this season, winning only once in the first 13 races, but he eventually picked up the pace with Red Bull and won four straight beginning at the Singapore GP to get back in contention for the title.
"We really had to fight until the end," Vettel said.