Updated at: 11/07/2012 12:05 PM
By MICHAEL CASEY
(AP) ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates - Should Sebastian Vettel clinch a third consecutive drivers’ championship this season, he may look back on his third-place finish in Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as a key moment in his topsy-turvy season.
The race Sunday was won by 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen. But it was the 25-year-old German’s fearless drive through the field after starting dead last that had fans on the edge of their seats for most of the day. The podium finish meant the Red Bull driver kept the lead in the drivers’ championship, only dropping three points to rival Fernando Alonso of Ferrari, who finished second.
Vettel leads the drivers’ championship with 255 points, followed by Alonso at 245 and Raikkonen at 198.
Red Bull, which failed to clinch the constructors’ championship in Abu Dhabi, still leads with 422 points, followed by Ferrari on 340 and McLaren 318.
It wasn’t Vettel’s prettiest race of the season _ he collided with Williams’ Bruno Senna, ran over a sign when he miscalculated the speed of a car in front, and sideswiped Ferrari’s Felipe Massa on his way up the order. He also had plenty of help, with the safety car being deployed twice during a race that featured at least a half-dozen crashes and collisions.
But he also showed why he is the points leader, pulling off a daring pass to get past McLaren’s Jenson Button for third place with just three laps remaining.
"Yes, it’s hard enough to find your way once through the field, but we did it twice today," Vettel said. "Quite difficult with some guys, little easier with other guys. But the most important thing was that the pace was there and we were in a very strong position.
"It was a big chance to lose out a lot today, but we didn’t lose anything, so I’m very happy. The guys are pushing 100 percent," he said. "I feel very happy they’re all behind me and I try to do my best for them. I think we have two more races ahead of us; we’re in the best possible position, so I think we’re looking forward to the next race _ a new grand prix, a new challenge."
Team principal Christian Horner praised Vettel for bouncing back after being penalized Saturday when his car stopped at the end of qualifying. Race stewards ruled he had insufficient fuel to be tested as required by the FIA.
"After the problems of yesterday, it was a remarkable comeback from Sebastian to finish on the podium," Horner said. "He drove an unbelievable race today and his final move on Jenson was quite exceptional. To go from pit lane to podium was something we could only dream of before the race."
Even McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, who had secured the pole and led the race until a fuel pump problem forced him to retire after 20 laps, had to concede Vettel’s finish was hard to believe.
"Incredible how Sebastian came up from the pit lane," he said. "That was a bit lucky."
Raikkonen, who returned to F1 after rally driving for a year, had a great start that allowed him to overtake Red Bull’s Mark Webber at the start to move into second. He took the lead when Hamilton retired and drove a mistake-free race to earn his first win since the 2009 Belgium Grand Prix.
"I’m very happy for the team and myself, but mainly for the team," said Raikkonen, who earned Lotus’ first win since three-time world champion Aryton Senna won a race in 1987. "It’s been a hard season for the team. Hopefully, this gives us more belief, not just for those are doing the work but those who run the team."
The race featured plenty of fireworks _ the most dramatic came when Nico Rosberg ran into HRT’s Narain Karthikeyan, who had broken quickly after his steering malfunctioned, flew over his car and crashed into a wall. Neither driver was hurt.
Webber also was involved in at least two incidents, colliding with Williams’ Pastor Maldonado and then crashing out when he hit Romain Grosjean of Lotus, who had stalled after crashing into Sauber’s Sergio Perez.
Raikkonen’s win and Vettel’s podium finish ensure the title race will go down to the wire. It could be decided Nov. 18 at the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, if Vettel wins and Alonso finishes fifth or worse. It would be an amazing comeback for Vettel, who trailed Alonso by 44 points after the German GP. While Vettel has won four of the last five races, Alonso lost ground when he failed to finish in Belgium and Japan.
Still, Ferrari put on a brave face after Sunday’s race _ insisting it remained firmly in the hunt despite racing with a car that it has admitted is much slower than the Red Bulls.
"It’s true that with Sebastian last, there was an opportunity to reduce the gap more significantly," Alonso said. "But it’s equally true that our performance and our grid position could have seen us lose points in this grand prix. ... Let’s hope we can put in a good result in an important country like the United States. Tonight I go to sleep thinking the glass is half full, rather than half empty."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)