With the German starting from the pits and title rival Fernando Alonso starting sixth on the grid, it seemed all but guaranteed that Alonso would eradicate some, if not all, of Vettel's 13-point lead.
But some genuinely brilliant driving - and no small amount of luck with safety cars - saw Vettel scythe through the field in extraordinary manner to end up finishing third.
Alonso still finished ahead of Vettel, but rather than taking a massive chunk out of the championship lead he could only trim it to 10 points, leaving the German odds-on to win his third consecutive title.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner later hailed Vettel's race as "one of the best of his career... he really went for it and to go from the pitlane to the podium, it was phenomenal.
"(I thought) maybe we could get an eighth or a ninth. But I went to see Seb before the race and he said, 'I will see you on the podium'."
Others have been less complimentary, with McLaren chief Martin Whitmarsh saying, "I think he was pretty fortunate with safety cars and the general demolition derby that was going on. He didn't have to overtake as many of the quicker cars as he should have, as they were already taken out."
Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali was more positive, calling the luck "part of the game" and hailing Vettel for his "perfect race".
What do you think? Was Vettel's drive one of the best of all time? Take a look at our pick of four of the great performances in the sport and have your say in the comments box below.
John Watson wins the 1983 US Grand Prix from 22nd on the grid
McLaren driver Watson and his team-mate Niki Lauda had both performaned appallingly in qualifying, struggling to get the balance of the car right and starting from the back of the grid at Long Beach, California. But they finally cracked the set-up in final practice, and after a series collisions ahead of them (only half the 26-car field finished the race) Watson and Lauda climbed up to third and fourth respectively just a third of the way into the race, albeit 20 seconds off leaders Jacques Laffite and Riccardo Patrese. Laffite's tyres were deteriorating badly, however, and Patrese ran wide as he tried to overtake, letting the McLarens through to complete perhaps the most incredible 1-2 ever seen in F1.
Jenson Button wins the weather-hit Canadian Grand Prix in 2011
The longest race in F1 history - the chequered flag finally came down four hours four minutes 39.537 seconds after the start - was also one of the most extraordinary. Jenson Button started seventh, slipped down the grid due to some poor tyre choices as rain forced several red flags, crashed into both team-mate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, picked up a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pit lane, and found himself 21st and last 40 laps into the 70 lap race. But then he stole a march on the rest of the field by putting on super-soft tyres - which gave him two seconds a lap - and cut through the entire field in the final 30 laps, eventually pressuring Vettel into a crucial mistake to let him through into the lead just a few corners from the end.
Jim Clark finishes third at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1967
Clark started on pole and was leading the race, but lost a tyre on lap 14 - which at that time meant losing an entire lap on the leaders. He rejoined running 15th out of 18, but cut through the field car by car until finally managing to re-take the lead ahead of Jack Brabham and John Surtees. That was until his fuel pump went on the final lap, letting his rivals pass him as he coasted in third, punching his steering wheel in frustration.
Ayrton Senna wins in Japan to clinch 1988 World Championship
The Brazilian knew he could beat McLaren team-mate Alain Prost to the championship heading into the penultimate race of the season in Japan, and looked set to clinch his maiden title as he took pole by nearly a third of a second. But disaster struck before the start: he stalled on the grid, and quickly found himself back in 14th place. Senna started cutting through the traffic, however, somehow getting up to fourth place within four laps. The Brazilian passed Prost as the Frenchman was blocked by Andrea de Cesaris, and Senna went on to win by 13 seconds to secure a record eighth win of the season and his first world title.