Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber led home a Red Bull one-two, his first victory of the season, in Brazil with Britain’s Jenson Button third.
German Vettel, now a back-to-back world champion, had been on course to cap a near perfect 2011 campaign with his 12th grand prix win of the year but was hampered by gear box trouble. The 24-year-old, though, was able to nurse his car to the chequered flag.
“We had an amazing season and it would be over the top being upset now, so we take this second place,” he said afterwards.
“It has been a phenomenal year and a very strong finish now as well. We are all looking forward to the break and coming back as strong as this year.”