Fernando Alonso and Ferrari leave Abu Dhabi wondering how a Formula One title that looked theirs for the taking somehow slipped into the hands of Sebastian Vettel on Sunday.
After his win in the dramatic Korean Grand Prix last month, Alonso become points leader and the momentum had shifted away from the Red Bulls, as neither Vettel nor teammate Mark Webber finished that race.
A third-place finish behind the Red Bulls in Brazil kept him atop the drivers' standings coming into the final race Sunday. When the Spaniard qualified third in for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, two places ahead of nearest rival Webber, all looked in place for Alonso's third drivers' championship.
But like much of the topsy-turvy Formula One season with the points leader almost changing by the month, the race didn't go according to script. Despite being favorites, the decisions by Ferrari and Red Bull to change tires early cost Alonso and Webber at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
While they were stuck behind traffic, Red Bull's Vettel was clear in front and went on to win the race and become the youngest ever F1 champion _ capping a historic season which for the first time saw four drivers battling it out for the title in the last race.
The 23-year-old German, who had not led the championship at any stage until he received the checkered flag Sunday and was 15 points back of Alonso coming into the final race, showed a maturity over the final two races that some had thought was lacking when he made costly errors in Belgium, Turkey and Hungary.
"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."
Ferrari _ which appeared on the rebound after a subpar season in 2009 _ was left to rue the mistakes that cost them the title. "There is great sadness at the moment, because to come so close to our goal and to see it slip away for just a few points really hurts," Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali said. "This was probably our worst race of the season."
A pivotal moment in the race came on lap one, when seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher spun. With his Mercedes motionless and facing the wrong way, it was hit at speed by the Force India of Vitantonio Liuzzi, with the car mounting Schumacher's Mercedes and the wheel narrowly missing the German driver's head.
The pair walked away unscathed, but that brought out the safety car. Several cars, including Renault Vitaly Petrov, took advantage of the situation to pit and change tires while all the main drivers stayed out.
Webber was the first of the title contenders to change tires, coming in on lap 11. Ferrari, assuming Alonso only had to finish close to the Australian to win the title, brought in the Spaniard four laps later to mirror Webber's strategy.
However, that instead put both of them behind Mercedes' Nico Rosberg, and Vitaly Petrov, whose Renault they ended up trailing for the rest of the race. All the time, Vettel plus the McLaren pair of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button got further away.
Alonso repeatedly tried to pass the rookie Petrov, who is the first Russian to race in F1. He almost clipped Petrov during a failed attempt on lap 24 and then twice more went off the track as his aggressive driving almost got the best of him. As the two crossed the finish line, Alonso angrily shook his fists at Petrov.
But afterward, Alonso appeared ready to move on. "Renault was quick on the top speed. It was a frustrating race behind him," he said. "This is a sport. This is motor racing. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Congratulations to Red Bull and Sebastian. But next year, we will try again." The 29-year-old Spaniard refused to blame the team's pit strategy for his failure. He ended up four points adrift of Vettel, followed by Webber 14 points back.
"After the race, it is always very easy to see the best strategy," Alonso said. "If we didn't stop, Webber probably would have overtaken us. If we stopped we cover from Webber but let Petrov and Rosberg in front so it was a very difficult call."
But his teammate Felipe Massa was not so kind, telling reporters "the race was not good" and that "it was not a great strategy to stop so soon."
That was echoed by Domenicali, who admitted the team made several mistakes during the race.
"We made a wrong strategy for three reasons," he said. "We marked a rival with two cars, we were unduly concerned about the wear rate of the soft tires, and we did not take into consideration the difficulty of getting past other cars on the track." In the end, it was Red Bull which was celebrating after adding the drivers championship to the constructors' title it had already won.
Delirious team members hugged and celebrated in the pits, yelling "Weltmeister," German for world champion, on the team radio. The Queen song "We Are The Champions" blared on the radio.
The team's jubilation and Vettel's tears on the podium were as much in relief as triumph. Red Bull had the best car throughout the season, but the trading of wins between Vettel and Webber, and some occasional mistakes, had put the drivers' championship in jeopardy.
"It's an unbelievable outcome," team principal Christian Horner said. "He's stuck with it through this year, he's had some tough times and he's had his issues with reliability here and there, but he's never lost his focus. He's the youngest ever Formula One world champion and a very deserving world champion."