The double retirement - the tearful Vettel's left front corner was too badly damaged to continue any further than the Toro Rosso pit - allowed Kovalainen back up into second, with Massa - despite three pit-calls - third from Coulthard, Fisichella, Heidfeld and Raikkonen. Nico Rosberg, Ralf Schumacher and Anthony Davidson would all swell the list of those failing to go the distance before lap 60, but the race was now on for points over the remaining laps.
A key milestone was passed on lap 51, when 75 per cent of the race was completed, ensuring that the top eight would score full - rather than half - points, but Hamilton was already easing away from those behind, leaving Kovalainen to come under pressure from Massa and Raikkonen to begin making his way through the field.
Ferrari's Finn was clearly not about to settle for a lowly points positions, particularly when there was a world championship to remain a part of and, having disposed of Fisichella, began lining up Coulthard. A first move at turn five saw the scarlet car run out of road, but Raikkonen made a repeat stick on lap 57, hanging on around the outside to demote the Scot to fifth.
The move was key for it allowed Raikkonen to slot in behind team-mate Massa, whose own title chances were fading despite being holding a potential podium spot. Whether or not his tyres needed replacing, Massa appeared on pit-lane for a fresh set of wets and a touch of fuel with nine laps remaining, allowing Raikkonen to maximise his afternoon's reward.
The Finn was still not satisfied, however, and, having closed the gap to Kovalainen, began searching for a way around the Renault. The pair ran nose-to-tail for several laps, Raikkonen holding onto third despite a couple of trips through the asphalt run-off areas and even finding a way through into second for a couple of corners, only for Kovalainen to demote him again.
Just as it appeared that the order had been settled, however, the lower half of the top eight began its own reshuffle, with Heidfeld slowing and Rubens Barrichello, who had moved into the final scoring spot, requiring a late splash-and-dash that cost him a couple of positions. Their demise allowed Kubica and Liuzzi - who had started a lap down remember - to lay claim to points, the Italian opening both his and STR's account for the year.
Massa, too, wasn't done and, having rejoined behind Kubica, set about trying to dethrone the Pole, their battle going wheel-to-wheel into the last lap. Twice and more, the pair swapped places, going beyond the grass verges on occasion, before Massa got the nod at the final corner. Two tenths split the pair at the flag, but neither appeared aggrieved, shaking hands in parc ferme.
The show of emotion proved that Formula One could be hard and fair, something that the McLaren pair are finding hard to reconcile as their title fight intensified. With Hamilton winning and Alonso failing to score in Japan, however, the situation looks a lot more cut-and-dried heading to Shanghai, the Briton enjoying a twelve-point gap with just 20 points left on offer.
Although Raikkonen remains in the frame, the Finn 17 points adrift, all Hamilton has to do is finish within a point of his rival in China to claim the crown in his first season. The pressure that had been being applied appears to have lifted.