Alonso was next in the following lap – but conversely to Webber, the Spaniard opted for a scrubbed set of soft tyres – followed by Massa and Vettel, who returned to the track right in the wheel tracks of Button, who must have sensed the opportunity to hold the Red Bull up in support of his own team-mate Hamilton. If that was the plan, however, it soon failed when Vettel aggressively muscled his way past Button around the outside of Turn Four and proceeded to scamper away once again. Hamilton pitted on lap 16, restoring the status quo
As Vettel extended his lead to a fraction under eight seconds approaching the halfway stage, Heikki Kovalainen in the Team Lotus T128 and Timo Glock in the Virgin Racing MVR-02 joined Maldonado on the sidelines, along with Schumacher, who parked his Mercedes in its pit garage. That, indeed, marked the start of a luckless couple of laps for the Brackley-based outfit, and here's why.
As the inspired Barrichello scythed his way back up the order following his early delay, the most experienced man in the sport's history produced a superb move to deprive Kobayashi of ninth place into Turn Three, and then immediately homed in on eighth-placed Rosberg. Trying the same move again just a lap later, however, it all ended in tears as the 38-year-old came from too far back and clattered clumsily into the side of the Mercedes, half-spinning and precipitating Rosberg's retirement shortly afterwards with smoke pouring from his car.
Barrichello himself was forced to pit at the end of the lap, and subsequently had to serve a drive-through penalty for his over-enthusiastic indiscretion, and the fracas
allowed the recovering Button up into the top ten. The 2009 F1 World Champion wasted little time in relieving Kobayashi of seventh place up the inside of Turn One, before setting his sights on – yes, you guessed it – Massa once more.
Talking of old sparring-partners, Alonso just in fifth was fast closing in on his Abu Dhabi adversary Petrov – at just 1.3 seconds adrift of the Russian – as both homed in dramatically on the struggling Webber, who was lapping as much as 1.7 seconds slower than his race-leading team-mate and had slipped to more than 20 seconds adrift of Hamilton and almost half a minute behind Vettel.
Webber was the man to signal the beginning of the second round of pit visits on lap 27 – seeming to take his mechanics somewhat by surprise in the process – with Alonso following suit a lap later, but Petrov motored happily on in third. Hamilton, meanwhile, had problems of his own, with a broken undertray on his MP4-26 sending him off-piste through Turn One, as McLaren – the team that had covered the fewest kilometres during pre-season testing – entered uncharted territory.
Vettel pitted at the end of lap 36, and for the second time in the grand prix had to manoeuvre his way around the McLaren mechanics on his way into his 'box – with Petrov following him in shortly after, and conceding ground to both Webber and the chasing Alonso in the fight over the final podium position.
The next curiosity of this opening race of F1 2011 was a new fastest lap for eighth-placed Sauber debutant Sergio Pérez on lap 40, whilst Webber pitted for a third time two tours later, needing to complete 16 laps on his last set of tyres – and releasing Alonso. Knowing he needed to attack on his 'out' lap, however, the Australian then ran wide and briefly off-track through Turn Three – and when his pursuer pitted next time around, the error was enough to reverse the position and theoretically demote Webber from the rostrum.
Suddenly, however, the roles were reversed, and Webber was immediately all over the back of the Ferrari ahead of him, as he endeavoured to recover what he had lost. On their respective rubber – Webber the softer compound, Alonso the hard – it was the Red Bull that was visibly faster, but Petrov was a further 13 seconds up the road again, with nobody knowing whether the Renault driver would need to stop again. Webber's assault stirred Alonso into setting a new fastest lap of the race, but the former was getting increasingly ragged.
Vettel, meanwhile, was continuing serenely on and simply pacing himself at the head of the field with an eleven-second margin over Hamilton as the grand prix entered its closing stages – and aside from the Alonso/Webber battle, another good scrap was Button vs. Massa round two, with the Briton going around the outside of the Brazilian for P6 before they had even got to Turn One and leaving his rival to deal with the advances of the extraordinary Pérez right behind, the Mexican having made just a sole pit-stop all race and, even more incredibly, on the softer rubber for more than half of it.