Vettel and Alonso bot made their final stops with 15 laps remaining, with the former retaining his lead but the latter dropping behind both McLarens and Webber, whilst Heidfeld's last tyre-change saw 'Quick Nick' rejoin behind team-mate Petrov, with the ever-present Massa similarly in close attendance behind. Petrov dutifully released Heidfeld at the end of the back straight, and the German then found himself promoted another spot when Webber pitted for the fourth time a couple of laps later, whilst Massa made short work of Petrov.
In what was a dramatic race throughout, the next 'moment' came as Alonso homed in on the ailing Hamilton, as the two old foes disputed the final podium position. Despite his rear wing not working, the Spaniard was still clearly the faster of the pair, and he was soon all over the back of the McLaren – but then he got just a touch too
close, as he misjudged the distance between himself and his rival heading towards Turn Four and caught the back of Hamilton's right rear tyre with his front wing.
That left Alonso needing to pit for a new nosecone and Hamilton – for the second grand prix in succession – with a damaged floor on his MP4-26, and with Heidfeld, Massa and the charging Webber, who with seven laps remaining was all over the Brazilian ahead of him and, with newer tyres, visibly with more grip at his disposal than the Ferrari ahead of him.
The following lap, the Aussie bravely forced his way around the outside of Massa through Turn One, securing the inside line for Turn Two and gutsily toughing it out to steal fifth and set his sights on Heidfeld ahead. The Renault returnee, however, was fully focussed himself on chasing down the fading Hamilton in front of him, with the three drivers separated by less than three seconds as the tension mounted.
With five laps left to run, Heidfeld got a superb run on Hamilton and forced his way cleanly and aggressively down the inside into Turn One, keeping it tight on the exit to complete a textbook manoeuvre. Any welcome breathing space the German had, though, was swiftly negated when Hamilton went wide and Webber needed no second invitation to nip past. The McLaren pitted shortly afterwards for his fourth stop of the afternoon, rejoining in-between Petrov and Kobayashi in eighth place.
The Russian would not go much further, however, as he went off through Turn Eight and attempted to rejoin the circuit at unabated speed – an unadvisable move, it would transpire, as the Renault bounced over the grass and flew briefly into the air, leaving its driver with a broken steering column as Petrov managed to bring it to a halt against a marker board on the other side of the track.
With Button dovetailing careful tyre-management with trying to keep the pressure on Vettel at the front, all eyes turned to the scrap over third, as Webber closed inexorably in on Heidfeld, taking full advantage of tyres with more life in them. A lock-up for the Renault on the penultimate lap looked as though it may provide the Red Bull star with his opportunity, but Heidfeld recovered himself and when Webber went too deep into Turn Nine on the final lap, the positions were effectively set.
Almost unnoticed against the backdrop of the fierce fight in his wake, Vettel coasted his way around the last lap to claim his 12th grand prix victory and preserve a peerless record in F1 2011 to-date, and the defending world champion will carry a 24-point advantage in the title standings to round three in China next weekend.
Having expertly coped with the lack of KERS and turned up the wick on his adversaries just when he needed to, the German weaved across the finish line in celebration of his success, with Button taking the chequered flag just over three seconds behind in the end for an excellent second place.
Heidfeld hung on grittily to take his first podium finish in F1 since the same race two years ago – a superb result for a driver who only a matter of weeks ago, didn't even have a seat this season and looked to have reached the end of the line in the sport – with Webber crowning an impressive fightback with fourth and Massa leading Alonso nose-to-tail across the line in fifth and sixth, although the Brazilian would park his car on the slowing-down lap after running out-of-fuel.