SAO PAULO — Sebastian Vettel found himself spinning just after the start, watching as other cars whizzed past. His Formula One title hopes seemed to be drifting away.
It was only the start of Vettel's problems Sunday in what he called the toughest race of his career. But he overcame all of them and claimed the only prize that mattered: his third straight championship title.
Vettel shook off a first-lap crash and other difficulties to finish sixth at the Brazilian Grand Prix, good enough to protect his lead over Fernando Alonso and become F1's youngest three-time champion at age 25.
"Everything that could go wrong went wrong," said Vettel, whose 13-point lead became a three in the end.
Jenson Button of McLaren won at Interlagos, with Alonso second and Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa third. Seven-time world champ Michael Schumacher, F1's most successful driver, finished seventh in his final race after 19 seasons.
But they were all overshadowed by Vettel, who had to overcome a poor start, the early crash, a damaged car, a broken radio, a botched pit stop and pouring rain.
"Just look at the stuff that went wrong. It was for sure the toughest race," Vettel said.
Vettel was in last place before he could turn his car around. But he worked his way up despite a slightly damaged car and no radio.
Vettel is the first driver with three titles in a row since Schumacher won five from 2000-04. The only other driver to win at least three consecutive championships was Juan Manuel Fangio from 1954-57.
Schumacher, 43, bid farewell to the sport, lapping the track before the race with a flag that read "Thank You." He leaves with the most wins (91), poles (68), fastest laps (77) and most podium finishes (155).
EAST BAY: AJ Maddox won the Sprints feature at Gibsonton late Saturday for the second straight week. Other winners: Dan Darnell in Florida Old Time Mods, Stephen Hohlbaugh in Outlaw Fours, and Brett Calonge in Bombers.