(CNN) -- Sebastian Vettel recovered from a nightmare start to become the youngest ever triple Formula One champion as Jenson Button won the Brazilian Grand Prix.
The 25-year-old was hit on the fourth turn of the opening lap and suffered damage to the left side of his car which could not be fixed.
But Vettel roared back through the field to finish sixth and deny title rival Fernando Alonso by three points with the Spaniard finishing the race in second place.
"I feel very proud of my team and of the season we have had," said Alonso.
"We have lost the championship now, but not here in Brazil, instead in some other races (Belgium and Japan when he was involved in first corner accidents).
"When you do something 100% you have to happy and proud for the team, and we will try again next year."
It means that Vettel is only the third driver in the history of the sport to win three successive titles, equalling the achievements of Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher.
In a race which twisted and turned at every opportunity, it was no surprise that Vettel was made to sweat for his moment of glory.
A slow start saw him drop to ninth before a coming together with Bruno Senna left his car damaged.
With Red Bull unable to fix the problem and his title hopes sliding away, Vettel produced the drive of a champion, fighting his way from the back of the field to keep the pressure on Alonso.
While Alonso sat further ahead with hopes of a third world title beginning to surface, the rain began to fall, leaving the drivers at the mercy of the elements.
Vettel was forced to pit no less than three times as the weather continued to change, while Lewis Hamilton's hopes of winning on his final race for McLaren were cruelly dashed.
The 2008 world champion, who will race for Mercedes next year, collided with Nico Hulkenberg and suffered a broken front-left suspension.
While he was applauded all the way back to the paddock by his McLaren team, it was Button who took full advantage.
As the Briton remained untroubled as leader of the race, Vettel was still battling to get past Schumacher and claim the sixth place finish he needed to claim the title.
Seven-time winner Schumacher finished a creditable seventh on his final race before retirement, but it was the action further up the track which was catching the eye.
Alonso passed Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa to move into second, but with a few laps remaining, Vettel finally passed his fellow countryman to secure the title.
Final Brazilian GP top 10
1. Jenson Button - McLaren 1:45:22.656
2. Fernando Alonso - Ferrari +2.754
3. Felipe Massa - Ferrari +3.615
4. Mark Webber - Red Bull +4.936
5. Nico Hulkenberg - Force India +5.708
6. Sebastian Vettel - Red Bull +9.453
7. Michael Schumacher - Mercedes +11.907
8. Jean-Eric Vergne - Toro Rosso +28.653
9. Kamui Kobayashi - Sauber +31.250
10. Kimi Raikkonen - Lotus +1 lap