Brazil-bound F1 prepares for climax to the carnival

As Red Bull team boss Christian Horner was conducting his media briefing after the United States Grand Prix, Formula 1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone leaned over his shoulder.

"Thank you very much," Ecclestone said with a smile. "Very kind. Very well planned. I didn't think he was going to make it but you did it in the end."

"As you can see," Horner said to the assembled journalists as Ecclestone left. "Everything pre-arranged."

Their jokes were a reference to the fact that Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel had just been beaten into second place by McLaren's Lewis Hamilton. That meant the German extended his lead over his title rival Fernando Alonso by only three points, rather than the 10 a victory would have earned.

Alonso will therefore head into the season finale in Brazil this weekend with a 13-point deficit to Vettel.

That's a significant amount to make up on a rival with a superior car but it means that F1's global TV audience can now look forward to a tense showdown at the final race of the season knowing that, as Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali said, "Everything is possible". Just how Ecclestone likes it.

Horner has been predicting this season would go down to the wire all year and as he said on Sunday "unfortunately I've been proved right".

For much of a triumphantly successful return to America for F1, it had not looked like it would turn out that way.

Vettel appeared to be in a league of his own on the demanding new Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, lap times out of the reach of his rivals coming with ease. And Alonso was struggling.

When Vettel put his car on pole, with Alonso down in ninth after what Domenicali described as "one of the worst qualifyings in our championship", it looked very much like the German would tie it up here in America.

It would have been a neat way for Vettel to celebrate his 100th grand prix, especially as his career started at the last US Grand Prix in 2007, but it is not what anyone outside Red Bull wanted. This has been a thrilling season and it deserves a fitting climax in Brazil.

Alonso, whose season has been defined by his rescuing improbable results from seemingly impossible positions, was moved up one place on the grid thanks to a penalty for Lotus's Romain Grosjean.

In many ways, though, that made it worse for him - it put him on the dirty side of the grid, from where he was almost bound to lose places.

So Ferrari began to plan what would turn on Sunday morning into F1's latest controversy, the sort the sport does so well.

They decided to break the official FIA seal on the gearbox of Alonso's team-mate Felipe Massa, triggering an automatic five-place penalty for the Brazilian and moving Alonso up to seventh.

It triggered a storm of controversy in the paddock on Sunday morning, and on social media around the world, but it was notable that after the race Ferrari's rivals refused to criticise them.

Horner said it was "within the regulations; it's a tactical move". McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh described it as "quite a tough thing to do" and said that he did not think he would have done the same.

But Whitmarsh did also then added: "They are very focused on Fernando and, in fairness, it works for Fernando. It was not doing those things that meant Fernando left us and he's a great racing driver."

As he again proved in the race. Seventh at the start, Alonso took a risk by going for the outside line around the first corner. Michael Schumacher on his inside was too busy trying to block Kimi Raikkonen on his inside and before Schumacher knew it Alonso was past the pair of them into fourth place.

An alternator failure on Mark Webber's Red Bull 17 laps later promoted Alonso to third and that's where he finished.

Ahead of Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton were in a league of their own - as they had been in qualifying.

Vettel's pace through the practice sessions had suggested he would run away with both qualifying and the race, but Hamilton ran him close in qualifying and did rather more than that in the race.

It was a fantastic duel between two fantastic racing drivers. Hamilton would close in, Vettel would pull away a little, being careful to ensure the McLaren was never quite close enough to pass him on the straight in the zone where the DRS overtaking aid could be deployed.

For a long time it looked like Vettel would pull off a victory remarkably similar to the one Alonso achieved in holding off the Red Bull and McLaren's Jenson Button in Germany back in July.

But then on lap 42 Vettel came across Narian Karthikeyan's HRT at exactly the wrong place, through the fast swerves at the start of the lap. Hamilton closed in and took his chance.

The situations reversed, Vettel could now do nothing about Hamilton and they continued that way to the flag, rarely much more than a second apart.

It was a superb, well-deserved victory by Hamilton, staying in range of Vettel throughout, despite the increased tyre wear it produced, and eventually the pressure he applied paid off.

Vettel ranted on the radio about Karthikeyan delaying him, but after the race he was more sanguine, perhaps realising that it is his responsibility as the leader to manage the traffic. It's part of the skill-set a grand prix driver requires.

On the podium stood the three drivers who possess more of that skill-set than anyone else - Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso.

Astonishingly, it is the first time these three titans of the sport have shared the podium and it could not have been more perfect for the crowd at the track.

The nearly 120,000 fans who turned up at the Circuit of the Americas witnessed a great race between two of the world's three best drivers, all of them on the podium - wearing cowboy hats provided by tyre supplier Pirelli in a lovely touch - and behind them a fascinating race full of superb racing action.

It was exactly what was deserved by what looks set to become a favourite event for the sport.

It has been said for years, after the failure of a succession of venues in the US, that America and F1 just don't mix.

Austin's debut made that claim look absurd.

A new event in a city without an international airport, deep in the south of the country, away from the east and west coasts where it had been believed the sort of supposedly more cosmopolitan population would make a better fit for F1, attracted more than a quarter of a million fans over three days.

F1 loved Austin; it appeared Austin loved F1; and you cannot say the event was other than a resounding success.

The same can be said of this F1 season. Vettel heads to Brazil knowing that even if Alonso wins he still needs to finish only fourth to be champion. Alonso for his part knows that even if Vettel fails to finish he still needs to be third to overhaul his rival's total.

On paper, it is hard to see how Vettel can lose. But Brazil is known for its unpredictable weather and if this season has proved anything it is that nothing can be taken for granted.

What a weekend it promises to be. Ecclestone must be thrilled.