Answering this question, is first getting some misconceptions straightened out.
* McLaren is a car whose best-lap set-up is one that allows for overtaking, not one that has a 12kph speed-deficit. I’m sorry, but claiming Vettel that had an advantage changing his set-up means you don’t understand; he had to sacrificy lap-time to be able to have any chance of driving a race. He was not faster because of it, it only enabled him to make overtakes.
* Hamilton was 5th-fastest in the Barcelona speed-trap, Vettel 4th-fastest. Insignficant difference.
* The DRS zone at Barcelona is actually about the same length (830m) as the first (1250m – 390m = 860m) DRS zone on Abu Dhabi and longer than the second (740m).
* A lot has been said about ‘Vettel only overtook backmarkers’, but if you look at the 13 on-track overtakes (7 less than Vettel’s 20 on-track overtakes) Hamilton did in Spain, he actually overtook less non-backmarkers: Narain Karthikeyan, Pedro de la Rosa, Charles Pic, Timo Glock, Vitaly Petrov, Bruno Senna, Heikki Kovalainen, Daniel Ricciardo, Nico Hülkenberg, Nico Hülkenberg, Paul di Resta, Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Éric Vergne.
* Things have been said about Vettel’s luck with other people ‘crashing into eachother’, but if you take a moment to look at what actually happened, you’ll see that everything that would have seriously influenced his race, happened behind him. He only benefitted from Hamilton and Massa, but similarly, Hamilton benefitted from Schumacher, Senna and Webber. Again, insignificant difference.
* The first safety car is what enabled Vettel’s coming-together with Riciardo. Without the first safety car, Vettel would be at the same point (12th, 24sec down) 5 laps earlier, but he would not have had his tire strategy compromised. At best, the first safety car cancelled out the bad effect it had in the first place, but it still cost him 5 laps in which he was significantly faster than everyone but Hamilton and Räikkönen.
* The second safety car is the only that arguably helped him… gain one position. While there’s no saying he couldn’t have caught Button without, we would still be talking about 24th to 4th.
* Vettel had his one-stop strategy compromised. Hamilton had a two-stop strategy in a 3-stop race. Insignificant difference.
* Excluding Karthikeyan who qualified outside of 107% in Spain, the gap time between first and last on the grid was 106% in Barcelona. Excluding Karthikeyan (again dead last in Abu Dhabi), the gap time between first and last on the grid was 104% in Yas Marina. The backmarkers in Abu Dhabi were more competitive than in Barcelona (excluding the backmarkers, it’s pretty even with 102.5% to 102.9%).
So, now that we have some facts straight, the question.
As Bob correctly said, it seemed Hamilton was taking a more conservative approach, while Vettel was clearly fighting for the championship. How would Hamilton have faired if his goal was the podium? Would Vettel have made those three mistakes if he didn’t need to agressively overtake to get to the podium?
It all comes down to risk versus pay-off. Hamilton took less risk, and the pay-off was a measely 4 points. Vettel took more risk, and the pay-off was 15 points. Hamilton may have had the cleaner drive, but it seemed more like a normale in a car that would have ended in the points anyway, then an inspiring drive to come back from what happened. At the end of the season, it’s not about who drove the cleanest races, but who collected the most points. Vettel showed a racing spirit and relentless determination to win that championship. Vettel bounced back and never once gave up.
From my perspective, where I think the quality of the race is more determined by pushing to the limit AND getting the results, rather than by keeping your sidepots clean, Vettel had the better race. Had Vettel banzai’d himself out of the race at the end, it would have been debatable, but Vettel delivered both the performance and the results.