Mark Webber finally claimed his first victory of the 2011 F1 world championship campaign, but was somewhat gifted the honour when Red Bull Racing team-mate Sebastian Vettel ran into gearbox problems.
The German made the better start from an all-RBR front row, while Webber slotted into second after fending off a fast-starting Jenson Button, but it initially appeared that Vettel had the upper hand and, despite the chance of Webber moving up in the overall standings, neither would have been happy with team orders altering the order. As Vettel pulled out almost a second a lap, Webber also pulled away from Button, leaving the Briton at the mercy of Fernando Alonso as Red Bull looked on course for another 1-2 result.
The gap between the top two was nearly four seconds by lap ten, but there was more action further back, with Bruno Senna and Michael Schumacher coming together at turn one, resulting in a puncture for the German and a penalty for the local favourite, and Alonso closing sufficiently on Button to pull off a stunning outside pass at turn five.
That, however, was quickly overshadowed by the first radio transmission that informed Vettel that he needed to short-shift in second gear. Despite the warning, the German continued to press on, only to be cautioned again, this time with the word 'serious' emphasised by his engineer, who instructed the world champion to 'short shift every corner every lap'. Vettel acknowledged the call, adding that he would not hold his team-mate up, with Webber already beginning to close in.
The swap of positions came at the start of lap 30, with Vettel moving out of Webber's way at the entry to the Senna 'S', but only after setting another fastest lap. Vettel's antics caused cynics to suggest that perhaps allowing Webber through was an attempt to help the Australian to second in the championship - even if his team-mate needed help in that direction from both Button and Alonso - but it was soon apparent that he was unable to keep pace, even if Alonso wasn't yet a threat to second place.
Behind the top four, Hamilton ran fifth, ahead of Felipe Massa, with Adrian Sutil keeping Nico Rosberg at bay and Paul di Resta holding ninth in a strong display for Force India as they not only tried to keep ahead of Sauber and Toro Rosso but kept Renault's fifth overall in sight. Schumacher's enforced tyre change had dropped the German to the back of the field, rejoining between Button and Hamilton as the leaders put a lap on the Mercedes, while Senna was running just behind his assailant having been penalised for the secondary contact that caused the puncture and damaged his Renault's front wing.
The order had hardly been shuffled by the first round of tyre stops, but Button attempted to make a play for at least a podium finish by switching to the harder medium compound at his second stop, having reported that his McLaren had been better on that tyre during the early stages of the weekend. McLaren appeared to be hedging its bets when it kept Hamilton on the soft compound two laps later, a decision that was echoed by the remainder of the frontrunners as Alonso, Webber and Vettel all took their stops.
Massa, meanwhile, was attempting to go through on two stops, having pitted later than his rivals first time round. The move had not helped his position that much after, and he fell back to fifth when Button breezed past and back into fourth after 39 laps. Hamilton was next to challenge the Brazilian but, given their history this season, it was no surprise to see Massa less willing to make space for the second McLaren. Unable to find a way past, Hamilton opted to pit again just eleven laps after his second stop, this time fitting a set of mediums in an effort to undercut the Ferrari.
The Scuderia, however, covered the move, returning Massa to the track in front of his rival but, in truth, the battle was already over, with Hamilton being told to conserve his gearbox. Just three laps after attempting to gain an advantage in the pits, the Briton was parking up with a box full of neutrals, his difficult season ending on another disappointing note.