Updated at: 11/19/2012 1:05 PM
By JIM VERTUNO
(AP) AUSTIN, Texas - On to Brazil.
Formula One takes its championship duel between Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to the season-ending race in Sao Paolo this week after those two finished second and third Sunday at the U.S. Grand Prix won by McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton.
Vettel could have wrapped up his third consecutive championship with a win and a poor performance by Alonso, but the German hasn’t clinched anything yet. By finishing second, Vettel at least picked up three points on Alonso and now leads by 13 heading to South America with a chance to make history and do a little samba if he does.
If the 25-year-old Vettel wins another world championship, he’ll join Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio as the only drivers to win three in a row.
After Sunday’s race, Vettel sounded comfortable with the lead and his chances of winning again.
"We’ve been very quick in Brazil the last couple of years, so plenty to look forward to," said Vettel, who won in Brazil in 2010 and finished second last year. "On top of that, we increased our lead in the championship today, so I think we are in the best possible position."
Alonso said his chances of catching Vettel are slim but not impossible. The 31-year-old Spaniard won the world championship in 2005 and 2006. Alonso has twice finished second in Brazil but never won.
"We will arrive in Brazil with a chance right to the last. Maybe on paper that chance is not so big, but deep down, I feel it’s much more than that," Alonso said. "(Sunday) was an unexpected podium which came at the end of a particularly difficult weekend ... To only lose three points to Vettel is in fact a nice present."
Hamilton’s victory stole the spotlight from the title chase.
Hamilton won the last U.S. Grand Prix in 2007 in Indianapolis and talked openly about his desire to win Formula One’s return to America. Driving with the stars and stripes of the American flag painted on top of his helmet, Hamilton started in second and pushed Vettel the entire race on the new $400 million Circuit of the Americas course.
Vettel started from the pole position and led 41 laps until Hamilton passed him near the end of the course’s long straightaway. Hamilton held him off for the final 14 laps to grab his fourth victory of the season.
"He had one chance and took it," Vettel said.
Vettel and Hamilton survived the chaos of the start as the drivers surged for the top of the 133-foot elevation at the signature first turn and Vettel looked to be off and running to a victory. But Hamilton stayed close and constantly pushed Vettel until he zipped past as their approached the tight corner on turn No. 12.
"I knew that lap was going to be the lap that I was going to try, so I turned the engine up and went for it," Hamilton said.
"I tried to defend ... but I knew that he would have so much more speed that he would get by either side so it didn’t really matter what I was doing," Vettel said.
Alonso worked hard to stay in the hunt for the drivers’ championship.
Alonso was set to start in eighth position but got a boost to seventh when Ferrari broke the gearbox seal of Alonso’s teammate, Felipe Massa. That meant a five-spot penalty for Massa that allowed Alonso to move up.
"The reason for this was for strategy considerations, with the objective of maximizing Alonso’s start potential given that he’s still in with a chance to win the drivers’ championship," Ferrari said in a statement. "It was a decision agreed by both drivers."
Alonso used the better position to immediately advance three spots in the first lap. He ran into trouble with a bad pit stop when his crew struggled to replace one of his rear wheels, but made up enough ground to keep the pressure on Vettel into next week.
Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen, who won in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, finished sixth. Schumacher, a seven-time world champion who is set to retire again after Brazil, could not capitalize on starting from the No. 5 spot in his Mercedes car and slipped to 16th.
The victory invigorated Hamilton, the 2008 world champion who will drive his final race for McLaren next week before joining Mercedes in 2013.
"We have a good car and hopefully we can try to compete again with these guys," Hamilton said. "I’m obviously not fighting for the championship. It’s maybe more exciting for these guys, but I’m having fun."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)