Fernando Alonso was always the dangerman for Red Bull after qualifying so close to them, and on Sunday afternoon he put Ferrari back in Victory Lane with a beautifully-judged performance that owed a little to a delay during Sebastian Vettel’s second pit stop.
Vettel appeared to settle for second place once it became clear that he could not catch the red car, having lost crucial time in the pits when there was a problem with a rear wheel. He was 16.5s adrift of the Spaniard by the flag, but had team mate Mark Webber on his tail and threatening to pass until team boss Christian Horner instructed them to “maintain the gap,” as they struggled with their tyres in the closing laps.
Behind them, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton had a real dust-up for fourth place. The Englishman had driven beautifully from 10th on the grid, making up places hand over fist in the early stages when lunchtime rain obliged everyone to opt for Pirelli’s intermediate rain tyres. The rash of stops to change them began on Lap Nine, and meant that nobody thereafter had to use the hard slicks but could run as many softs as they had available.
Hamilton overtook Alonso on the 15th lap and ran third behind Vettel and Webber, but a better stop for Alonso on the 27th lap put the Ferrari ahead of the McLaren again. After Vettel’s delay that lap, the Spaniard moved into a lead he never thereafter surrendered.
Vettel fell to third behind Hamilton because of his problem, but the Red Bull driver pushed ahead after their final stops. Vettel got very close to Hamilton on Lap 35 exiting Woodcote but couldn’t make it stick, and opted instead to stop for tyres again on Lap 36. Hamilton did likewise on Lap 37, but the German moved ahead in the stops, and then Hamilton was instructed shortly afterwards to back off in order to conserve fuel. He could do nothing about Webber, who overtook on the 46th lap, and that set up his fight with Massa.
Down into Vale on the last lap, Massa pushed ahead but Hamilton refused to give up and pushed down the inside of the left-hander. They made brief contact which damaged the McLaren’s front wing, but as Hamilton dived back for the inside line exiting the first part of Club Massa stayed to the outside but ran wide and then into the run-off area. They crossed the line officially split by 0.024s, with Hamilton dramatically maintaining fourth.
What at one stage looked hugely promising for McLaren turned into a major disappointment when Jenson Button had to retire at the end of the pit lane on the 39th lap, while running second during the rash of final stops and fighting for a top four position; his car was released from the pits too soon, and the nut had not been fitted to the right front wheel.
Further back, Mercedes’s Nico Rosberg kept his cool despite massive race-long pressure from Sergio Perez’s Sauber, with Nick Heidfeld taking ninth for Renault after fending off Michael Schumacher. The Mercedes driver had earlier damaged his nose and earned a 10-second stop/go penalty for spinning Kamui Kobayashi as they fought over seventh place ahead of Rosberg and Perez; Schumacher recovered but later the Japanese driver retired.
Jaime Alguersuari took the final point after a determined chase of Schumacher ultimately proved fruitless, and just held off Force India’s Adrian Sutil and Renault’s Vitaly Petrov by the flag.
Earlier there had been a mix-up in the Force India pit when Paul di Resta, running a superb seventh early on, was accidentally given Sutil’s tyres and lost a lap while this was rectified. The bitterly disappointed Scot was only 15th.
There was also a close finish between the Williamses. Their hopes of points evaporated very early on, and Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado rarely featured after the opening laps and finished in that order, 13th and 14th, 0.8s apart.
Behind Di Resta, Timo Glock and Jerome D’Ambrosio were 16th and 17th for Virgin, as Tonio Liuzzi drove hard in his HRT to keep the Belgian honest and finished a lap ahead of rookie team mate Daniel Ricciardo.
Neither Team Lotus driver made it home, Heikki Kovalainen dropping out early with gearbox problems and Jarno Trulli likewise hitting mechanical trouble with an engine oil leak. Sebastien Buemi joined the other five retirees after slicing his left rear tyre in a racing incident with Di Resta, and had to stop when the rubber flew off the rim of his Toro Rosso.
Vettel, of course, continues the lead the title chase, with 204 points, from Webber on 124, as Alonso jumps the McLaren drivers with 112 to their 109 apiece. Red Bull extend their constructors’ lead, with 328 points to McLaren’s 218 and Ferrari’s 164.