But fourth place in Brazil next Sunday is all the German now needs to win his third world title after he extended his championship lead to 13 points in Austin, Texas as his title rival Fernando Alonso finished third in his Ferrari at the Circuit of the Americas.
Vettel had led the first 41 laps of the race, but Hamilton took advantage of the Red Bull Racing driverbeing held up by the Hispania Racing Team's Narain Karthikeyan on lap 42 to get close enough to use his DRS [drag reduction system] to pass Vettel on the outside on the run down to Turn 11.
The McLaren-Mercedes driver then pulled away from Vettel and cruised to his fourth win of the season, while Vettel could take solace from extending his championship lead with his 18 points for second place being enough for Red Bull to secure their third straight constructors' championship.
Alonso had benefited from a controversial move by Ferrari before the race to give his teammate Felipe Massa a five-place grid penalty.
The Ferrari team chose to break a seal on the Brazilian's gearbox, thus infringing rules on gearbox adjustments during a race weekend.
It was a tactic to deliberately earn a punishment so Alonso could move up to seventh on the grid as Massa dropped to 11th from sixth, allowing the Spaniard to start on the clean side of the track.
The double world champion took full advantage of that as he charged up to fourth at the first corner and gained another place when Mark Webber, Vettel's Australian teammate, retired from third place with an alternator failure.
But Alonso could do nothing about Vettel or Hamilton, finishing more than 30 seconds off the pace, and he faces a tall order in Sao Paulo in the final race of the season if he is to add to his 2005 and 2006 titles.
He must finish in the top three to have any chance of securing the title. If he is first, Vettel must finish no higher than fifth.
If he is second, then Vettel must be no higher than eighth, and third place will be enough if Vettel is no better than 10th.
Massa put in one of his best performances of the season to recover from his grid penalty to take fourth, ahead of the McLaren of Jenson Button, who drove superbly to recover after dropping down to 16th on the first lap after a poor start.
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