And then the complexion of the race changed in an instant on lap 9: Nico Rosberg had also been on the comeback trail after his enforced early pit stop, and was approaching the back of a slow Narain Karthikeyan. Rosberg was caught out by the sudden closing rate on the back of the HRT and ended up launching right into and over the side of the car. The Mercedes flew right over Karthikeyan's head and ended up in the run-off safety barrier, while Karthikeyan's trashed HRT was on the side of the track in a settling cloud of carbon fibre debris.
A safety car was a no-brainer, but it was still too early in the race for anyone to come in for their scheduled single stops, although Jean-Eric Vergne needed to head in to deal with lingering issues from earlier skirmishes. Vettel did not, however, despite still having lingering concerns about the state of his front wing, and he duly moved up to 12th place behind Vergne's Toro Rosso team mate Daniel Ricciardo.
It proved to be a lengthy clean-up operation for the Rosberg/Karthikeyan crash, during which time the drivers were having to work hard to maintain their tyre temperatures behind the safety car in the cooling twilight conditions. Ricciardo's weaving and braking antics proved particularly vigorous and caught out Vettel, who had to swerve off the right hand side of the track and through a polystyrene marker to avoid ploughing into the back of the Australian's car.
That put the matter of whether or not to change Vettel's front wing beyond question, and Red Bull duly brought the car in at the end of lap 13 before the safety car was withdrawn. That put a seething Vettel back down in 21st position, but he was now on fresh soft option tyres that gave him the edge as he started to work his way back through the field again once the race restarted on lap 15.
Hamilton was once again in charge and he quickly pulled away from Raikkonen and Maldonado, while further back it seemed that the tables had briefly been turned between Alonso and Webber. The Ferrari struggled to stay ahead of the Red Bull through the first corners back under green, but Alonso was then able to make the most of the Ferrari's straight line advantage to protect his position and maintain the status quo. Watching on from sixth place, Jenson Button bided his time and waited for his own opportunity.
Further back, Vettel's latest charge hit a momentary speed bump when he tangled with Romain Grosjean for 17th place on lap 17: Vettel got past but appeared to do so by moving all four wheels off the side of the track, so he was advised to hand the position back and do it all over again rather than risk the stewards doling out a drive-thru penalty. This he did, and it took him just three additional corners to successfully remount the overtaking move on the Lotus. His pace was such that it now seemed a matter of if not when he was back in the points.
The one thing that wasn't in doubt was Hamilton's lead, with the Briton driving a flawless race - right up to the moment that the McLaren died on lap 21 with an electrical failure, a shocking and near-unbelievable reprise of Hamilton's fate while leading in Singapore. He could do nothing more than coast the car off onto the grass run-off and climb out, yet another lost opportunity in a season all too full of them.
That bumped Kimi Raikkonen into the lead of the Grand Prix, and Pastor Maldonado into second - although Fernando Alonso had different ideas about the latter, pulling off a gusty move on lap 22 to get past the Williams at the first opportunity. Mark Webber had similar designs on doing the same thing, but his move on the Venezuelan on lap 24 ended up in a collision that spun the Red Bull out into the run-off area. Webber complained about Maldonado over the team radio, but replays showed that it had been the Australian who had pinched the other car too tight into the corner and that he had left Maldonado with no where to go, making it a straightforward racing incident as far as the stewards were concerned.
A few minutes later, Jenson Button was able to deliver a master class to show how Webber should have done it, when he passed Maldonado cleanly for third place on lap 25 through the inside of turn 11. Webber meanwhile had dropped down to seventh place behind Felipe Massa after his spin, and his attempts to get past the Ferrari ended up in a new collision for the Red Bull: this time Webber survived by cutting across the chicane and rejoining the circuit in front of Massa, who spun all by himself over the kerbs as he was startled by the way Webber came back onto the track ahead of him.
Raikkonen continued out in front as more and more cars filtered through pit lane for their one scheduled tyre stop, his radio message to the Lotus pit wall a succinct "Just leave me alone." Astonishingly, all the pit stops meant that Sebastian Vettel was now up to third place, and his next target up the road was his own team mate Mark Webber - who was told to pit right away in what seemed like a conscious effort by the team on testing whether or not Webber would obey team orders to let Vettel past or not.