The German, needing only a fourth place to join the greats as the first driver to win his first three titles consecutively, finished sixth after fighting back with a damaged car from last on the opening lap.
It proved enough after his sole rival Fernando Alonso, needing victory, crossed the line in his Ferrari in second place with Brazilian Felipe Massa third.
"You're a triple world champion. You're the man. You are a triple world champion," shouted team principal Christian Horner over the team radio as Vettel crossed the finish line after what he said later was the toughest race of his career.
The team could not hear his reply, or his choked sobs of joy, because the radio was faulty and had been only incoming for most of an afternoon that threw one obstacle after another at the champion.
Image: Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel, center, of Germany, celebrates with members of his team after the Formula One Brazilian Grand Prix at the Interlagos race track in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. Vettel overcame a first-lap crash to clinch his third straight Formula One championship title on Sunday, finishing sixth in an incident-filled Brazilian Grand Prix won by Jenson Button under pouring rain.