his triumph after dominant early leader Lewis Hamilton was forced into retirement by a power failure on his McLaren car.
Ferrari's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso, Lotus F1 Team's Finnish driver Kimi Raikkonen celebrate on the podium at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi after the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix. AFP
Raikkonen won convincingly ahead of Fernando Alonso of Ferrari who pushed hard for victory in the closing laps of an extraordinary 55-laps contest that included two prolonged safety car periods and a rash of major accidents.
Defending champion and series leader Vettel started from the pit lane in his Red Bull car and produced one of the greatest drives of his career to finish third.
Vettel's phenomenal drive, including clocking a fastest lap, kept him 10 points ahead of Alonso in the title race with two laps remaining.
The German leads on 255 points with Alonso on 245 and Raikkonen on 198.
This was Raikkonen's first win since the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix and his 19th career win.
He is the eighth different victor of the season and he gave the Lotus name a victory for the first time since Ayrton Senna won for the original Lotus team in the United States in 1987.
On a hot afternoon, producing a track temperature of 33 degrees Celsius, Lewis Hamilton made a near-perfect start to pull away from his 25th pole position and into a clear lead.
Behind him, Raikkonen enjoyed a fast getaway and seized second ahead of a slow-starting Mark Webber.
Alonso sized up Webber and the Spaniard made his pass on the second straight after a dramatic wheel-to-wheel tussle through turn eight.
On the second lap Vettel in 20th damaged the front wing of his Red Bull in a collision with Bruno Senna's Williams.
On lap nine Nico Rosberg ran into the back of Narain Karthikeyan's Hispania car and flipped into an airborne ride across the Indian's car and over his head at more than 300 kph.
He slid heavily into the barriers and triggered the introduction of a safety car for six laps during which Vettel, having risen to 14th, ran too close to Daniel Ricciardo's Toro Rosso and swerved wide, hit a bollard and almost hit the barriers.
This further damaged his front wing and he pitted on lap 13, rejoining 22nd to endure a close scrap with Romain Grosjean's Lotus, the Frenchman having re-entred the fray after his eighth opening lap crash of the year.
If it appeared to be ill-fortune for Vettel, it was not as this early stop enabled him to take full advantage as the race unfolded.
Hamilton's superb drive ended on lap 20 when his McLaren lost all power. He pulled up, retiring from the lead for the second time in six races. It was his fifth 'did not finish' of a frustrating year.
Pole-sitter Hamilton's demise left Raikkonen in the lead while behind Vettel had climbed into the points ahead of the midway pit stops.
As Felipe Massa, Webber and Raikkonen made their stops, Vettel rose to second, taking full advantage of his luck.
As Vettel struggled to hang on on soft tyres his team chose to call him in on lap 38 for a pit stop that saw him rejoin fourth ahead of a multi-car battle for fifth that exploded into another multiple collision on lap 39.
After a chain of minor incidents, Sergio Perez crashed his Sauber into Grosjean's Lotus and, as they spun across the track, Webber was trapped in the carnage.
He hit the Frenchman's Lotus and was forced out with Grosjean.
Perez was given a 10-seconds stop-and-go penalty for his rash racing.
All of this required another safety car intervention with Raikkonen in front ahead of Alonso, Jenson Button and Vettel as the teams recalculated strategy, possible tactics and prospects.
After four laps, they resumed with Raikkonen re-seizing control to lead by two seconds and Vettel challenging Button for third with 10 laps to go before passing him on lap 53.
Alonso, in a final push, closed to within striking distance of Raikkonen, but the Lotus man clung on in the final two laps.