Hülkenberg came in for his first pit stop on lap 15 - earlier than hoped for on the prime tyres - and was joined on pit lane by Sebastian Vettel, who beat him back out on track in seventh place after the Sauber crew struggled with the right rear wheel. That put Button temporarily in charge of the race, some three seconds ahead of the rapidly approaching Alonso.
There was drama further back down field when a clumsy late overtake by Webber on Jean-Eric Vergne in the sister Toro Rosso team ended in tears on lap 16, Vergne spun around and the front wing of Webber's car shattered. Initially, Webber thought that the car was otherwise good to go, but after making it back to pit lane he suddenly realised that the rear-right of the car was now unstable: finally the tyre detached itself on the exit of turn 14, the untethered wheel ambling right across the track in front of other cars coming past that included Webber's own team mate Sebastian Vettel. Fortunately no hard was done, save for yet another early end to proceedings for Webber himself.
There was a scare for Kimi Raikkonen at the same time, as he tried to get past Sergio Perez who was defending his position with some vigour. That ended up with Raikkonen putting a wheel on the dry grass verge and as a result he made contact with the McLaren: fortunately the only damage was to the front wing of the Lotus and it wasn't severe enough to require an immediate visit to the pit lane for replacement, so both cars were able to continue.
Button held the lead through to lap 21, when Alonso finally caught and passed the Briton. Despite this setback, things were still looking reasonable good for Button who was still to pit and was running on his first set of medium tyres, compared with Hamilton and Raikkonen who were in for a second time having switched to the mediums just 14 laps previously. Button finally came in for his first change on lap 24, and was joined on pit lane by Alonso.
The two of them rejoined behind interim leader Sebastian Vettel and Nico Hülkenberg, with Hamilton and Raikkonen moving into fifth and sixth positions respectively once Perez came in for his own first stop - and a change to the dreaded options - on lap 25, with di Resta doing a solid job in managing to fend off Massa for seventh place. Meanwhile, Nico Rosberg had joined the list of retirees when he pulled into the Mercedes garage after a rapid sequence of fruitless pit stops failed to cure worsening understeer that pointed to a suspension issue with the anti-rollbar.
Alonso quickly raced his way back to the lead on lap 30, with Vettel even told by the Red Bull pit wall not to waste time defending against the Ferrari's advances but to concentrate instead on the long game by maintaining his own lap times. Vettel came in for his own second stop on lap 32 but unlike Perez he opted to stay on the medium compound for now, immediately showing its efficacy by overtaking Massa for sixth place on the very next lap. Vettel also made short work of Hülkenberg who had made his second stop and risked a mid-race stint on soft tyres. That put Vettel right behind Button, who was in fourth place on his attempted two-stop strategy until promoted back up to third by Raikkonen's next visit to pit lane for tyres on lap 35; Vettel was given the hurry-up by his team and duly passed Button on lap 37.
On the same lap, Hülkenberg returned to pit lane to shed the options and get back on the prime tyres; his stop ended up coming at the same time as Felipa Massa's visit to the Ferrari box, and the two came out side-by-side - until Hülkenberg struggled to disengage the Sauber's pit lane speeding limiter which released Massa to take the track position in eighth place. Next lap around it was Hamilton's turn to pit, but the slow stop left him in fifth place behind Raikkonen.
Alonso surrendered the lead again on lap 41 for his final scheduled stop, and he emerged pit lane so close to the rear of temporary race leader Sebastian Vettel that it only took two laps for him to complete another DRS move on the Red Bull into turn 1 to snatch the top spot back again. Button ceded third place to Kimi Raikkonen on lap 44 and then lost another position to Hamilton next time by, with the McLaren starting to struggle on its end-of-life primes and Button still with his final pit stop to come - along with that dreaded short stint on the options, which the team put off as long as possible before finally succumbing to the inevitable the end of lap 49.
By that stage Alonso's lead over Vettel was over seven seconds, followed by Raikkonen, Hamilton, di Resta and Massa, with Button rejoining in seventh ahead of Ricciardo who had just managed to steal a position from Hülkenberg. Button quickly put his option tyres to work while they had any pace left in them, and immediately claimed sixth position from a squirming Massa through turn 14 before his options started to drop off the proverbial cliff; however, he did end up gaining fifth place when di Resta's final pit stop on lap 53 which bumped the Scot back down to eighth behind Massa and Ricciardo.
Vettel came in at the end of lap 51 for his own final stop for the mandatory stint on the options, hoping for a similar boost in the remaining five laps of Shanghai as he resumed in fourth place 13 seconds behind Hamilton. Vettel made short work of that gap and he went into the final lap with the rear of the Mercedes looming large instead. The German hoped that lapped traffic would further hold up Hamilton in the final corners, but instead the Caterham caused more headaches for Vettel and caused him to run wide, giving Hamilton just enough of an edge to make it to the line ahead of Vettel despite a ragged exit from the final corner.