While the retirement would eventually hand Massa his sixth top five finish of the year, he would not be going any higher unless those ahead of him hit problems and, despite further warnings being issued to the world champion, Vettel's gearbox appeared to be holding together.
Indeed, the top four appeared set for a while, allowing attention to switch to the few battles going on in their wake. Most notable amongst these was Rosberg's attempt to defend sixth from a determined Sutil. The pair had swapped positions during the second round of stops, but Sutil, with his seat for 2012 under threat, was not about to settle for seventh. Having had one attempt into turn one rebuffed by his countryman, he responded next time around by crowding the Mercedes at the same place, leaving Rosberg no room to reply. With team-mate di Resta running eighth, the gap to Renault was closing tantalisingly, although Force India was another needing a miracle up front to improve their overall position.
Sauber and Toro Rosso also remained locked in combat over seventh overall, with Kamui Kobayashi holding ninth ahead of Renault's Vitaly Petrov, with Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi stalking the Russian for the final point. Sergio Perez, meanwhile, was recovering from a spin, but found himself behind Rubens Barrichello in what could be the Brazilian veteran's final grand prix appearance. Further back, Team Lotus appeared on course for a second consecutive tenth place in the championship, a result that would confirm them as a 'column one' team eligible for an FOM pay-out, as Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli easily out-paced Marussia Virgin and HRT. The former was down to a single car after Timo Glock left his first pit-stop without his left rear wheel, the German kick-starting a retirement list that also gained Williams' Pastor Maldonado before Hamilton was added.
Button's hopes of going to the end on his medium compound tyres proved a mirage with 20 laps to go, the Briton having to pit for more of the same on lap 52, but he immediately set off in pursuit of Alonso, who also rejoined on the harder tyres after his third and final stop. The gap closed inexorably until, with nine to go, McLaren was able to take a look at Ferrari into turn one, setting Button up for a pass with the assistance of DRS three corners later. Once in front, the Briton pulled away from his rival, cementing his eighth podium in nine races since the double DNF he suffered mid-season.
Despite eating into the gap between himself and second place, however, there simply wasn't enough time for Button to catch and pass Vettel, and the German was able to back up his team-mate in another 1-2 for the year's dominant team. Button's pass on Alonso did have some significance for the championship battle, however, as victory then allowed Webber to move past the Spaniard and into third on the overall table.
The Red Bull driver didn't appear too overjoyed with his achievement as he stepped from the RB7 in parc ferme
, but the smile had returned by the time he took to the podium, climbing onto the highest step for the first time since Hungary 2010. His eventual margin of victory was a shade under 17secs, with Vettel nursing his car over the line, its gearbox almost devoid of oil. Button, too, was instructed to park up at the top of the Senna 'S', although his 'problem' was thought to be a lack of fuel rather than anything mechanical.
Alonso duly took fourth, ahead of his team-mate, while Sutil gave various teams food for thought as he resisted Rosberg for sixth. Paul di Resta concluded an impressive rookie season with another points finish - his eighth - in P8, while Kobayashi and Petrov ran unchanged to the flag, despite the best efforts of the two Toro Rosso drivers, who kept Perez behind them in 13th. The Mexican had earlier demoted Barrichello, possibly seeing the Brazilian bow out of the top flight with a 'fun' 14th, one place and four seconds ahead of former Ferrari nemesis Schumacher. Everyone between Sutil and his fellow countryman was a lap down on the leaders, with 16th-placed Kovalainen another behind, but doing enough to accompany Lotus' transformation into Caterham F1 with a handy pay-out.