Button pitted almost before Vettel had pulled clear, dropping to seventh as a result, but with his engineer telling him that he was looking good to combat those ahead of him poised to make four stops in the course of the 58 laps. Hamilton, meanwhile, had been advised that he was being switched to 'Plan B', which was assumed to be a move from three to four stops, but was quickly past Rosberg for fourth as the order shook itself out after the pit-stops.
While Webber appeared to have pegged Vettel's advantage at around three seconds, Alonso was keeping Red Bull on its collective toes, sitting not much further behind the Australian and forcing it to consider every move with care. The Milton Keynes team had the upper hand on-track as the race hit lap 20, however, with Hamilton, Rosberg, Massa, Button, Vitaly Petrov, Nick Heidfeld and Sebastien Buemi rounding out the top ten. Kamui Kobayashi, forced to start right at the back of the grid after a fuel pump failure in first qualifying, was eleventh, while Michael Schumacher, who had started eighth, was mired down in 16th after a series of brushes with cars around him in the opening lap, one of which necessitated a new nose.
While Massa and Rosberg continued to duel over fifth, Hamilton cleared the road ahead of them by starting the second round of stops as the race approached half-distance. Webber followed suit soon after, with Alonso, Rosberg, Massa, Vettel and Button in over the next few laps. Webber briefly lost second spot to the Spaniard due to the respective timing of their stops, but soon lost it more permanently, as Alonso swept by using DRS into turn twelve on lap 29.
Button's second stop hadn't worked out so well, the 2009 world champion being returned to the track behind Petrov and Massa, and it took several laps before he could start making progress back up the order, the gap between his group and the podium places extending all the time. By the time he had finally cleared both the Renault and Ferrari - a mission eased by the fact that both pitted in quick succession - his team-mate was making his third stop, with 24 laps still to go, confirming his switch to four in total.
Sadly for Hamilton and McLaren, the tyre change was far from clean, with the right front proving troublesome. To make matters worse, the Briton then had to be held for Massa to pull into the adjacent Ferrari box, dropping the silver machine to seventh. Webber, Alonso and Vettel all pitted in the following laps, holding position in the process, while Button's third - and final - stop dropped him to seventh.
There were no significant changes in the short gap between third and fourth stops, and Webber, Alonso and Vettel all repeated the process nine laps later. The Australian appeared to have come off worst, however, with a sticky front left seeming to have harmed his chances of catching and passing Alonso on the run to the flag. The Spaniard had been told that Ferrari would aim to cover the moves of those around him, duly stopping the Spaniard within a lap of Webber in an effort to guarantee second place. The move, however, didn't work, as Webber had the better package in the closing laps. Having seen Alonso emerge just ahead of the Red Bull, Webber closed in over the next few laps before finally nailing a pass - somewhere between turns twelve and 14 - on lap 51.
Hamilton, too, pitted for a fourth time, dropping behind his team-mate in the process, but showed that his strategy was the preferred option by catching and passing Button - with little opposition - well before the end. Indeed, Button admitted that three stops had not been ideal, but mainly because McLaren's caution had brought him in well before the life of each set of tyres was extinguished. Had he run longer on each stint, he mused, he would not have had to work so hard on the final set of harder Pirellis. The Briton also lost a position to Rosberg four laps from home, eventually finishing where he had started, in sixth.
Vettel eventually took victory nearly nine seconds ahead of Webber, the pair expunging memories of last year's inflammatory turn twelve tango with the first 1-2 result of Red Bull's 2011 campaign. Alonso, in third, also achieved a season's best, claiming Ferrari first podium of the year. Hamilton, Rosberg and Button were all disappointed not to have made more of their afternoon, while Renault twins Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov survived a wheel-banging moment of their own to come home seventh and eighth, although the Russian needed a last-lap pass on Sebastien Buemi to chase his team-mate across the line.
Buemi kept Toro Rosso in the points, ahead of Kobayashi, who defied his lowly grid position and a three-stop strategy to claim the final score, ahead of both Massa and Schumacher, who endured fraught afternoons.
Vettel's victory restored the sizeable gap at the top of the championship table, the German now 34 points clear of Hamilton. Webber moves closer to the Briton, in third spot, with Button dropping into the reach of fifth placed Alonso. Red Bull's best combined result of 2011 ensured that its advantage over McLaren moved out to 43 points, with Ferrari more secure in third.