McLaren's escalating lap times were allowed to continue for several tours before Hamilton was finally summoned for fresh rubber on lap 28, and the team's worst fears were realised when the 2008 world champion emerged in eighth, behind Webber. It was the same story when Button stopped next time around, the sizeable gap between the Briton and his team-mate accounting for Hamilton's elevation to seventh despite hitting traffic on his out-lap.
Alonso and Vettel both stopped a lap later, Red Bull somewhat strangely opting to cover the Scuderia instead of allowing its charge to get a couple of laps in clear air out front. The decision appeared to have scuppered Vettel's chances of victory, especially as the German's car stuttered as it was released.
Kobayashi's exit, which helped precipitate the second safety car, came a lap or so after the Japanese rookie had made heavy contact with Michael Schumacher as the pair diced over ninth place. Like McLaren, both teams appeared to have left their pit-stops too late and put themselves in danger of being passed by the early stoppers once they had been released by Glock being heaved over the kerbs by an aggressive Nico Hulkenberg, but Kobayashi's determination to pass Schumacher put the seven-time champion broadside and instantly demoted him to 15.
Even as Schumacher was pitting, however, Kobayashi found the limit as he turned to go under the grandstand at turn 18. Clipping the wall with his right rear, the Sauber then nosed into the barriers and, although a couple of others managed to avoid the wreck, its damage was completed by the unsighted arrival of Senna's lapped HRT.
Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg, promoted to fourth and fifth by the McLaren stops, took the opportunity to pit, dropping back behind the silver machines as the championship contenders again massed in the top five - albeit with the two Virgins between them - approaching the restart.
The incident between Webber and Hamilton drew the attention of the stewards but, like that which subsequently saw Schumacher exact some measure of revenge on Sauber by putting Heidfeld out at the same corner, no action was deemed necessary.
Although Button briefly closed on third place, Webber had enough of car - and tyres - underneath him to remain ahead of the world champion, while Rosberg proved no threat to either as he settled into a lonely fifth ahead of Barrichello and Kubica who, following a surprise second stop, charged back from 13th in the space of six laps.
There was more of a battle at the very front, however, as Vettel closed right under the rear wing of Alonso's Ferrari as the lap count vied with the clock to see which could expire first. In the end, the race went the scheduled 61-lap distance, but Alonso could not relax until he saw the flag, having closed on the battle for eighth - involving Sutil, Hulkenberg, Massa and Petrov - halfway around the final tour.
There was a moment when it appeared that the race may have to finish behind the safety car, as Heikki Kovalainen's car caught light after contact from Sebastien Buemi's Toro Rosso and the Finn was obliged to perform his own fire marshal duties after parking alongside the pit-wall. Such was the Finn's ability with the extinguisher, however, the race finished without interruption - and Alonso was able to see the chequered flag he so craved.
Not so long ago, eyebrows were raised when the Spaniard said he would win the world championship, such was the gap between himself and the overall lead. Now, however, with four races to go, Webber's lead over Alonso is just eleven points, the Ferrari man having leap-frogged Hamilton and opened a nine-point cushion on his former McLaren nemesis. Vettel, too, has closed the gap, now just a point behind Hamilton, even if he is still 21 adrift of his team-mate, with Button, despite his fourth place, a full race win off the pace.