Sebastian Vettel showed why he doesn't have to start at the front of the grid to compete for podium finishes — an ability that kept him on track for a third straight championship title.

Vettel's lead in the standings looked to be in danger at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday when he was forced to start in the pit lane behind the rest of the field due to fuel irregularities in qualifying. But the two-time defending champion bumped and zigzagged his way up the grid to finish third, just one place behind main rival Fernando Alonso of Ferrari. Kimi Raikkonen won the crash-filled race.

Vettel leads Alonso by 10 points with two races remaining, and could potentially clinch the title at the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 18.

After the setback in qualifying, Red Bull seemed to be focusing on Mark Webber, who was second and looked to be in a good position to win the race. But the Australian dropped to fifth after a bad start, then collided with Pastor Maldonado before crashing out on the 39th lap after colliding with Lotus' Romain Grosjean.

It was left to Vettel, who collided with Bruno Senna and Ferrari's Felipe Massa on his way up the order. Even after pitting and dropping from 13th to 21st, the German kept pushing until he passed McLaren's Jenson Button to retain his lead in the drivers' championship.

"Yes, it's hard enough to find your way once through the field but we did it twice today," Vettel said. "Quite difficult with some guys, little easier with other guys. But the most important thing was that the pace was there and we were in a very strong position.

"It was a big chance to lose out a lot today, but we didn't lose anything, so I'm very happy. The guys are pushing 100 per cent. I feel very happy they're all behind me and I try to do my best for them. I think we have two more races ahead of us; we're in the best possible position, so I think we're looking forward to the next race — a new grand prix, a new challenge."

Team Principal Christian Horner praised Vettel for bouncing back after being penalized Saturday for his car stopping at the end of qualifying. Race stewards ruled he had insufficient fuel to be tested as required by the FIA.

"After the problems of yesterday, it was a remarkable comeback from Sebastian to finish on the podium," Horner said. "He drove an unbelievable race today and his final move on Jenson was quite exceptional. To go from pit lane to podium was something we could only dream of before the race."

The big loser appeared to be Ferrari, which was unable to take full advantage of Vettel's problems — picking up only three points in the title chase.

"It's true that with Sebastian last, there was an opportunity to reduce the gap more significantly," Alonso said. "But it's equally true that our performance and our grid position could have seen us lose points in this grand prix. ... Let's hope we can put in a good result in an important country like the United States. Tonight I go to sleep thinking the glass is half full, rather than half empty.