Rosberg became the first of the front-runners to pit from P4, as the battle right at the front heated up, with Hamilton turning up the wick on his team-mate, as Vettel similarly piled on the pressure behind. With less than a second separating the trio, Button was afforded some welcome breathing space as Hamilton – visibly losing rear grip – found himself having defend for all he was worth against a feisty Vettel, who effortlessly breezed past along the back straight for second place.
Button and Vettel both pitted at the end of lap 15, but there was drama for the British star as he unfathomably pulled into the Red Bull 'box. He swiftly realised his mistake, but by then it was too late – and the erstwhile race leader's critical error cost him track position. There was further misery for McLaren as Hamilton lost out to Massa before making his own pit-stop, meaning both of the Woking-based outfit's drivers ceded a position during the stops – but incredibly, all of the front-runners lost out to Rosberg, whose early stop had vaulted the young German comfortably to the head of the field, to the tune of some five seconds at the end of lap 19.
As his pursuers focussed on finding a way past the two-stopping Heidfeld – with the ever-opportunistic Hamilton neatly following Massa past the German, by now struggling on the older 'Option' tyres – Petrov in the sister Renault a little further up the track was frustrating the attentions of Vettel.
With Rosberg holding a net lead from Vettel, Button, Massa and Hamilton, Schumacher – who had leapfrogged Alonso in the pits – found himself needing to defend his position from the Spaniard, who finally succeeded in squeezing his way past but not before losing a significant chunk of time. Further back, Webber – KERS-hobbled once again – set about chasing down Sutil and Kobayashi in the scrap over ninth place.
As Vettel closed countryman Rosberg down in the lead, Button pitted for the second time at the end of lap 25, followed by Rosberg and Hamilton, promoting Vettel back into the race lead, but the reigning world champion was losing ground, and his advantage over the Mercedes was just 16 seconds – not enough to make an extra stop should he require it.
With Vettel suffering from radio problems and unable to communicate with his team, Rosberg – on fresher tyres – brilliantly forced his way past Alonso into the final corner – to reduce Vettel's margin to just eleven seconds, with Button and Hamilton similarly fighting their way past the Ferrari shortly after.
As Vettel continued to lose time, an inspired Massa was closing him down, having left his team-mate Alonso fairly trailing in his wake. The Red Bull pitted on lap 32, rejoining only sixth behind the two McLarens – with Hamilton now right up with Button – and Alonso.
As Schumacher fought his way through traffic, Massa pitted from the lead at the end of lap 33 – with the major question now regarding who would and who wouldn't have to stop again – whilst there were doubtless a few winces on the McLaren pit wall as Hamilton set about relieving Button of third place, with the pair going wheel-to-wheel at the end of the pit straight and the latter only just getting out of it in time to allow his team-mate safely through after being caught slightly unawares.
Button stopped again with 18 laps to go to change over to a new set of hard tyres, whilst further back, there were engaging battles brewing between old foes Petrov and Alonso and Webber and Schumacher, the Australian gutsily forcing his way past the most successful driver in F1 history before making his third and final pit-stop shortly after. Rosberg's final stop, meanwhile, dropped the German behind Vettel and Massa in third but just ahead of the charging Hamilton, against whom he needed to defend fairly robustly.
As the laps ticked down, that left Vettel with a 3.6-second advantage over Massa, with a fuel-conscious Rosberg gaining on the Ferrari and the McLarens of Hamilton and Button following merrily along in his wake. The Mercedes star, however, lost out significantly when Pastor Maldonado in the Williams rejoined the fray following his final pit-stop right in front of him, and within just a matter of moments, the ensuing delay had enabled Hamilton to nip past up the inside and into P3.