ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Sebastian Vettel became the youngest champion in Formula One history Sunday, clinching the title when he won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Fernando Alonso faltered in the season-ending race.
The 23-year-old Red Bull driver started from the pole trailing Alonso by 15 points in the standings. 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.
"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."
The German is six months younger than Lewis Hamilton was when he won the title in 2008.
Vettel's championship caps a season in which Red Bull regularly dominated the field in qualifying, but often failed to convert its unrivaled speed into race victories because of reliability problems and driver errors.
Alonso, who started third on the grid, ended up four points behind Vettel in the final standings.
"It was a tough race, a difficult race," Alonso said. "We lost one position in the start and [in] the first safety car period Petrov and Rosberg came in."
Vettel didn't know the situation behind him during the last 10 laps due to a problem with the race radio and had a few nervous moments at the end, waiting to see whether Alonso could rise to fourth place on the last lap and earn enough points to take the title.
The celebrations finally started when he received the message he was hoping for.
"Weltmeister!" Vettel's team screamed over the car radio after Rosberg crossed in fourth place, using the German word for world champion.
"Unbelievable! Thank you," Vettel replied in a strained voice, barely able to speak as Red Bull engineers and crewmembers threw themselves into each other's arms.
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," the Spaniard said.
Red Bull's Mark Webber of Australia came in behind Alonso and finished third overall, 14 points behind Vettel.
Hamilton beat defending champion Jenson Button to give McLaren 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."
Vettel's title hopes appeared to be slipping away when he finished out of the points at the rainy Korean GP and fell 25 points behind Alonso with two races left. Vettel had started from the pole at Yeongam and was poised for victory before his engine blew with nine laps to go, allowing Alonso to win race and letting Hamilton back into the title hunt.
Vettel knew he could not afford to panic.
"You can't change what happened," he said. "But you can still change what will happen."
Ferrari ultimately paid the price for its cautious tactics Sunday.
The decision was clearly to tag Webber -- who was eight points behind Alonso going into the race -- as the main threat rather than Vettel, because a victory for the German was irrelevant so long as Alonso finished at least fourth.
But Alonso was overtaken by Button at the start and then pitted early on lap 16, allowing Rosberg and Petrov to stay ahead of him.
Webber went in for a tire change on the 12th lap in what looked like a precautionary measure after he brushed a crash barrier, and that prompted Ferrari into a panicky move, sending in Alonso for a tire change shortly after.
"Webber pitted and we tried to cover for him and when you cover for him you need to give way to others," Alonso said. "It was to choose between Vettel and Webber and Petrov or Rosberg. This is a sport. This is motor racing. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."
Five laps later, anxiety was creeping in as Ferrari officials told Alonso over the race radio that it was critical that he pass Petrov. Alonso nearly clipped the Russian rookie as he tried to get past on lap 24.
Seven-time champion Michael Schumacher had a lucky escape when he escaped unhurt from a scary accident on the first lap.
The German's car was nudged by his Mercedes teammate Rosberg. As he tried to maneuver it back around, Italian driver Vitantonio Liuzzi could not get his Force India car out of the way and rolled over Schumacher's front, narrowly missing his head.
Both racers climbed out unscathed.
"I couldn't move anywhere as there were cars all around me, and then when the smoke cleared I saw Michael the wrong way round," Liuzzi said. "I couldn't do anything, but thankfully we were both OK."
The 41-year-old Schumacher finished without a podium place in his comeback season.