But, just as in Mexico City a year ago, Hamilton, who needed to finish only seventh to be sure of the title, did enough to take the spoils, clinching his fourth championship in five quite remarkable seasons.
World championship leader Lewis Hamilton, pictured October 7, 2018, struggled with tyre-wear and lack of mechanical grip with his Mercedes auto as he and team-mate Valtteri Bottas were outpaced.
Vettel, a four-time champion himself, opened the season with a strong charge of two straight victories before Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the second half of the season.
Hamilton spent much of the grand prix at odds with his team as he struggled for pace, and then dramatically ran off the road while defending third position from Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo.
"Credit where credit's due", said Horner after Sunday's race.
Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the winners podium.
"The thing that feels bittersweet is we should've have had them both up there", he said.
"I haven't had a clean race, weekend, in so long".
So it was Verstappen on top of the podium, the Ferraris behind him - but Hamilton in fourth place got the title he wanted.
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"He did a superb job all year", Vettel said.
"I told him [Hamilton] it was well deserved and to enjoy it". Schumacher, with 91, also has more race victories, another target for Hamilton during the two remaining years of his current Mercedes contract.
Just a handful of corners later, and it was all over, and Ricciardo was climbing out of his auto, not having finished a grands prix for the eighth time this season.
"You can understand his frustration, and hope that this dark cloud that is following him around lifts for the final two races", said the Brit.
The Australian's rollercoaster year was marred by drama stemming from the relentless engine issues that frayed his relationship with Red Bull and ultimately contributed to his departure for opponent Renault.
"He fought so hard this year", Hamilton said.
Ricciardo entered the weekend having suffered seven retirements from races this season, as well as having had several other Grands Prix affected by reliability setbacks.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, of Britain, left, is followed by Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo, of Australia, during the Formula One Mexico Grand Prix auto race at the Hermanos Rodriguez racetrack in Mexico City, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018.