McLaren's Lewis Hamilton roared into the record books as Formula One's youngest champion on Sunday when he snatched the title in last lap drama at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
In one of the most thrilling finales the sport has seen, the 23-year-old Briton was seconds from failure for the second year in a row.
Needing to finish fifth to become his country's first champion since Damon Hill in 1996, Hamilton began the final lap in sixth place and with Ferrari title rival Felipe Massa cruising to victory.
Forced to pit for wet tyres while in fourth place after a rainstorm in the closing stages, Hamilton had dropped to fifth and was then passed by Vettel's Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso on the 69th of 70 laps.
With the title disappearing as fast as Massa's Ferrari was taking him to the chequered flag in front of his home fans, Hamilton's family looked on aghast while Brazil prepared to celebrate.
Salvation came in the shape of Toyota's Timo Glock, with the German struggling for grip after staying out on dry tyres.
Vettel overtook his compatriot for fourth place and then Hamilton powered past Glock as the final corner approached. Some 18 seconds later, the title was won.
"Amazing, I can't even get my breath back," said Hamilton, who embraced his father and brother before being mobbed by the team. "I thought my heart was going to explode. I think everyone else was the same.
"I don't know what would have happened if I had lost out on the last lap."
Team boss Ron Dennis could only agree: "It was heartstopping stuff," he said.
"I don't think there has been a more exciting world championship as regards the outcome. It just worked great.
"I'm sure there will be lots of people who have lots of opinions, but as far as we're concerned we came here determined to win the world championship, and we did."
Massa, Hamilton's sole title rival, won his home race for the second time in three years to chalk up a record 16th constructors' title for the Italian team and their eighth in 10 seasons.
Ferrari ended up with 172 points to McLaren's 151 with BMW-Sauber third on 135.
Hamilton, who missed out by a single point to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen in Brazil last season, ended the 18-race season with 98 points to Massa's 97.
"He scored more points than me, he deserves to win the title," said Massa. "I know how to win, I know how to lose.
"This is another day of my life that I'm going to learn a lot from."
At 23 years and 301 days old, Hamilton broke the record set by former McLaren team mate Fernando Alonso, the Spaniard who won the first of his two titles with Renault in Brazil at the age of 24, one month and 27 days.
Hamilton's title was the first for Mercedes-powered McLaren since Finland's Mika Hakkinen in 1999.
Massa, the first driver since compatriot Ayrton Senna in 1989 to miss out on the title after winning more races than anyone else, led from pole position after a start delayed for 10 minutes by a sudden downpour while the cars were waiting on the grid.
The safety car was then deployed for two laps after a collision that sent Britain's David Coulthard crashing into retirement after 15 seasons in Formula One.
The Scot's Red Bull tangled with the Williams of Kazuki Nakajima and Renault's Nelson Piquet, who was also eliminated from the race.
Alonso took second place in the race, with Raikkonen joining him on the podium to seize third place overall from BMW-Sauber's Robert Kubica on race wins.
Glock was sixth in the race, ahead of McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen and Italian Jarno Trulli for Toyota.