Race after race, despite the disparities between their cars, the German wunderkind couldn't find any means of stalling his Spanish rival's threat, despite the latter performing in a car which was described as a "dog" at the outset of the campaign.
Finally, though, Vettel has gained his third world title: an honour, both for him and the Red Bull organisation, which had already wrapped up the constructors' championship and whose exploits, since they were established less than a decade ago, have been the stuff of dreams. Yet, for the first few, crazy moments at Interlagos yesterday, it genuinely seemed Vettel might be destined to suffer the cruellest of sporting exits when Bruno Senna ploughed into him and shunted his car off the Brazilian circuit. For a second or two, everything stopped: even the commentators were lost for words, and that doesn't happen too frequently to the likes of Eddie Jordan.
But Vettel has ice in his veins and the confidence derived from securing the F1 prize in 2010 and 2011 allowed him to regain his composure, ignore the pressure and move steadily through the field, with the single-minded resolve and resilience which stamps him out as one of the sport's genuine superstars. Even in the aftermath of his litany of remarkable feats, multiple pole positions and honour-strewn Sundays, there have been too many petrolheads disposed to belittle Vettel's talents, but these sceptics should now be eating their words, because the 25-year-old was tested to the full extent of his abilities yesterday and passed the examination with flying colours. Alonso, by comparison, went off the track twice in the opening 10 laps, and was rarely able to stamp his authority on the situation.
This event usually produces drama and myriad twists and there were so many sub-plots to the action that it was occasionally difficult to keep pace with developments. At the climax, Vettel looked more relieved than ecstatic and was clearly grateful to Michael Schumacher for paying him a parting gift by allowing his compatriot to pass him and advance to sixth as the denouement beckoned. Yet, once he had joined the celebrations with his friends, family and backroom staff, the beaming smile testified to his joy, following a season where Red Bull had been pushed all the way by Alonso and the British duo, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton, who was bidding adieu to McLaren, swung from one emotion to the other, between the delight he gained from winning in Austin last weekend, to being denied another success when Nico Hulkenberg rammed into the English driver. It was a sad way for the 2008 world champion to exit the team, and one wonders whether he will not have to grow accustomed to these scenarios when he joins Mercedes.
As for Schumacher, the curtain has eventually fallen on his career and it's impossible to escape the feeling he should never have returned to the grand prix environs. With seven world crowns on his cv, allied to the reputation as being one of the fastest and most solipsistic characters who has ever graced (and occasionally disgraced) F1, Schumacher's legacy has been tarnished by his signal lack of achievement during his comeback.
Paul Di Resta, too, may wish he could wipe the slate clean on the second half of his year. When he lost control and smashed into the wall yesterday, it served as a microcosm of how his fortunes have plummeted. Eight months ago, he was ebullient, effective and in front of Hulkenberg, but the balance tilted emphatically away from the Scot. He needs to regroup quickly, otherwise he faces a prosaic future.
In the final analysis, Vettel and Red Bull merited their spoils, but Alonso, who once again finished on the podium, has shown how to extract every available inch from his vehicle and his tally of 278 points, only three behind Vettel, means he is entitled to demand a faster, fitter Ferrari. If he gets it, 2013 could be explosive.