Raikkonen and Massa were unsurprisingly the first of the front-runners to head for the pits eleven laps in to dispose of their unloved super-soft rubber, with Hamilton similarly making an early stop, followed by Kubica, with the released Rosberg immediately setting his personal fastest lap of the race.
That left impressive rookie Buemi seventh and Fisichella eighth, with ahead of the pair Kazuki Nakajima in the second Williams starting to apply pressure on Barrichello for fifth. Vettel pitted on lap 16 for a long-fuel, but third-placed Rosberg would lose out significantly with a delay on the left front of his car in his own stop, dropping back behind Massa, Kubica and – into turn three shortly after leaving the pit-lane – Raikkonen, the very drivers he had worked so hard to battle his way past in the first place.
Drama, however, lay just around the corner, as Nakajima dumped his Williams into the wall between turns three and four, scattering debris across the track and necessitating the first appearance in 2009 of the safety car. Barrichello and Button both managed to pit before the safety car took to the track, whilst there was a rather lighter cameo when Fisichella came in, the experienced Italian missing his pit box altogether and needing to be wheeled into the right place by his disgruntled Force India mechanics.
As the cars toured around in formation behind the safety car, Button led Vettel, Massa – who curiously endured a brace of damaging lock-ups – Kubica, Raikkonen, Rosberg, Piquet and Jarno Trulli in the points-scoring positions, with the major fear being for those drivers with KERS-equipped cars behind them on the re-start.
When the safety car peeled away again, Button and Vettel got the jump on the following pack, with a lock-up for the race leader very nearly allowing his pursuer to have a pop into turn one. Further back, Piquet lost it into the first corner and skated off deep into the gravel trap, very nearly taking Rosberg with him for good measure and causing the young German to drop down the order and outside of the points following his excellent early part of the race.
Further back, Hamilton went all the way around the outside of Timo Glock for eleventh place – not the first time during the grand prix that the British star had taken the long way round – as Button again began to scamper away at the front with half-distance approaching. Right at the back of the pack, meanwhile, Heidfeld and Webber were making no progress at all, still trailing the duelling Force Indias of Fisichella and Sutil.
Whilst Button continued to edge clear once more, all eyes were beginning to shift to the Ferraris, with Massa 5.5 seconds down on the lead in third position – but, perhaps crucially, having already used his softer compound rubber, a disadvantage the safety car had handily completely wiped out. The São Paulista was the first man to blink for the second time, with 27 laps left to run – seven laps earlier than either Kubica or Raikkonen were due to stop. Further back, Buemi was frustrating Rosberg's efforts to regain ground, with Hamilton behind barely able to keep with either of them.
Trulli was the next driver to stop from an excellent fifth in his 200th grand prix as, released from behind Massa, Kubica suddenly came alive and began to hunt down second-placed Vettel, setting a series of fastest laps as he chased his quarry. The key question now was who would have to run the super-soft tyres for the fewest laps in the race's closing stages – and who could manage them the best. Raikkonen, just over eleven seconds adrift of the lead in fourth, began to sense his opportunity.
Kubica pitted for the second time with 19 laps left to run – in company with Raikkonen – whilst Glock went for a spin in attempting to make his way past Alonso, very nearly tagging the Spaniard into the bargain. Up front, meanwhile, Button – 4.8 seconds to the good with 17 laps remaining – was continuing to trade punches with Vettel and Kubica behind him, as any one of five drivers remained firmly in contention for victory.
Crucially, Hamilton exited his pit-stop ahead of Massa, with the impressive and combative Buemi fancying a piece of the action as well into turn three, before Raikkonen went and spoiled Ferrari's day even further by spinning his car into the wall just 13 laps from home, dropping right the way down to 16th place in the process. With the Scuderia's grand prix rapidly unravelling, Vettel pitted for his complement of super-softs, and the young German had to drive very defensively on his 'out' lap to prevent Barrichello from getting past and compromising his race.