The expectation for an entertaining night race under the floodlights of the Marina Park Circuit set against the glittering city skyline of Singapore was given added spice by some of the line-ups on the grid: Lewis Hamilton on the front row alongside Pastor Maldonado, Mark Webber lining up next to most recent F1 'bad boy' Romain Grosjean, back after his suspension at Monza. There was just time for a poignant moment's silence on the grid in memory of the pioneering safety work of Professor Sid Watkins, before the drivers climbed into the cockpit and made themselves ready for action.
A solid start for Lewis Hamilton allowed him to take care of the threat from Pastor Maldonado starting on the front row alongside him, releasing the McLaren into the first corners and allowing Hamilton to start pulling away from the danger zone almost immediately.
That left Maldonado as Sebastian Vettel's problem, and while the world champion was careful not to invite disaster by pressing too hard too soon, he was right on the back of the Williams when a slightly flustered Maldonado consequently understeering out of turn 1 and giving Vettel the chance he needed to get past. Button also opportunistically sneaked past in the same move, and Maldonado found himself having to settle into fourth place just ahead of Fernando Alonso.
Things had been messier further back: a dive down the inside of the start/finish straight by Michael Schumacher ended up with the other Mercedes of Nico Rosberg being bumped off the outside of turn 1 by Mark Webber, who was having to avoid Romain Grosjean in a four-wide moment through the apex. Rosberg wasn't the only car to run off the track limits at the start - Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo were among a number of others to do the same - but the stewards were satisfied that no one had done so intentionally to gain an advantage and so no penalties were applied.
Otherwise the opening laps were remarkably free of actual collisions, with the exception of Vitaly Petrov who appeared to lose his front wing in contact with the back of his Caterham team mate Heikki Kovalainen, and Ferrari's Felipe Massa who sustained a puncture and joined Petrov in pit lane for running repairs.
Almost of the drivers at the front of the grid had started the race on supersoft tyres, but they were shortlived. While two-stop strategies were the aim of most of the teams it was by no means unanimous: Webber was clearly opting for a three-stop approach and was in at the end of lap 8, just 15 minutes into the two-hour race, and that dropped him down to 20th place by the time he came back out on track behind Marussia's Charles Pic.
Hamilton and Vettel had pulled away from Button at the front in the early laps but Vettel then mishandled the Singapore Sling chicane on lap 10 which allowed Button to close up on the Red Bull. Vettel was evidently unhappy with the way his car was handling, and he ended up following the lead of his team mate by pitting for new soft tyres relatively early at the end of that lap. He came back out immediately behind 11th-placed Sergio Perez, who Vettel quickly dispatched.
More drivers were deciding that their initial supersofts were degrading badly and needed changing: Alonso and Schumacher were in the next time around, and at the end of lap 12 it was the race leader Lewis Hamilton who was in for new tyres; Hamilton resumed in fourth place ahead of Vettel who was scrapping with Kimi Raikkonen. Next time around it was Maldonado and Raikkonen in to pit lane, which left Jenson Button and Romain Grosjean briefly leading the race but yet to stop. It was clear that those on fresh tyres were much faster than those trying to stay out, as an easy pass by Alonso on the yet-to-stop Sauber of Sergio Perez dramatically illustrated.
Button and Grosjean both came in for their own second set of tyres at the end of lap 14, but a slow stop for Button meant that he resumed in third place behind Hamilton and Vettel again once the initial round of pit stops had shaken out. Behind them, Maldonado retook fourth place from a yet-to-stop Nico Hulkenberg but not before hanging on to a wild sideways slide as he deployed his DRS. Alonso had a far calmer time of it when his own opportunity to pass the Force India came up minutes later, and after giving sixth place away to his team mate Paul di Resta, Hulkenberg finally came in at the end of lap 18 for his new tyres at the same time as the similarly struggling Perez.
By lap 22 Hamilton's lead was around 1.5 seconds ahead of Vettel, who in turn had around three seconds in hand over Button with similar gaps in turn back to Maldonado and Alonso and then a nearly ten second drop off to di Resta, Webber and Rosberg as the race seemingly settled into a comfortable routine.
That routine was shattered next time around when Lewis Hamilton's McLaren lost all gears coming out of turn 1, and found itself coasting down the track stuck in neutral and trailing smoke out of the back of the car. No amount of flipping gear paddles or thumping the steering wheel would revive the situation, and team radio communications from McLaren stating that they had "done everything we could yesterday" hinted that the issue had been a known problem going into the race - not that this was any consolation for Hamilton as he walked away from the stationary car and returned to the pits. McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh later denied that it was related to Hamilton's brush with the wall on Saturday.
That left Vettel in charge of the store ahead of Button, with Maldonado pushing very hard to close on the back of the sole remaining McLaren even at the cost of a brutal lock up into turn 1. Alonso followed in fourth with di Resta in fifth and Webber up to sixth before he was the first of the leaders to pit again at the end of lap 28 for a new set of supersoft rubber, which committed him to a three-stop strategy. Next time around, Maldonado and Alonso came in together - but there was a difference in tyre selection, with Maldonado going with the supersofts suggesting he was following Webber's three-stop approach, while Alonso opted for the prime soft tyres which kept alive the possibility of running all the way to the end of the race - even though that was half the total race distance - with no further stops.
Despite being on the grippier tyres it was evident that Maldonado still didn't have the same pace as Alonso, who was desperate to get past him. The Williams driver was having none of it and defended robustly, and then the duel between them was suspended as the yellow flags came out and the safety car deployed after Narain Karthikeyan understeered off into the barrier at turn 18 and got plastered in fire extinguishant by the rather too-eager track marshalls.
Kimi Raikkonen was quick to take advantage of the opportunity to dive into the pits, followed by Button and Vettel as soon as they were able to complete the current lap. Pretty much everyone followed suit regardless or where they were in their pit strategies prior to the safety car, and even Maldonado was back onto pit lane on lap 34 for a switch back to the prime soft tyres after all as the possibility arose that a lengthy stint under yellow could allow more cars to reach the end without further stops.
In fact, Williams had bigger problems with Maldonado's car: they had detected a hydraulic failure and were reluctantly forced to order their man to bring it into the garage and park. His race was done, and his long streak of point-less races that stretched all the way back to his win at Barcelona was extended by at least one more outing despite that oh-so-promising qualifying performance.
The race resumed on lap 39, with Vettel virtually brake-testing Button in the final corners before the green flag came out, which nearly ended in a nasty collision between the two. Once past start/finish line the major battle of interest was between Hulkenberg and Webber over fifth place which was finally won by the Australian, while further back Michael Schumacher was determined to pass Jean-Eric Vergne for tenth place.
Too determined, it turned out: as Vergne went wheel-to-wheel for ninth with a struggling Sergio Perez on older tyres, Schumacher realised too late that their scrap was resulting in them running into the next right hander far slower than Schumacher was expecting. He floored his bakes, locked up on the bumpy track - and ploughed right into the back of the Toro Rosso, sending up a cloud of carbon fibre and putting both drivers out of the race on the spot.
The new extended safety car period forced the hands of those teams still weighing pit stop strategies, and a gaggle of cars consisting of Hulkenberg, Perez, Petrov and Pedro de la Rosa came in for their final visits, with Petrov ordered to a halt at the end of pit lane after he exited his pit box with an improperly attached wheel nut.
The race got back underway again on lap 43, with the highlight of the initial laps under green being a fierce battle between Brazilian compatriots Bruno Senna and Felipe Massa over ninth place. Massa was clearly faster on the supersoft options but Senna had track position, squeezed him tight against the outside wall - and Massa wobbled, had the Ferrari twist violently off line by an angle of nearly 30 degrees, and a big accident for the two appeared imminent. Yet somehow Massa saved the car, got it pointing back in the right direction - and emerged from turn 13 ahead of Senna after all, in possibly the most jaw-droppingly unlikely successful overtaking move of the season to date.
Massa's dander was clearly well and truly up, and a couple of laps later he dispatched the next car up the road - Toro Rosso's sole remaining representative Daniel Ricciardo - without recourse to the same sort of drama.
Tyre wear, heat and humidity were all taking their toll on everyone, with things starting to get very scrappy now. Two different incidents claimed the front wings of both Saubers (Kobayashi while losing a fight for 11th position with Webber, Perez when he had the door slammed on him while making a move down the inside of Hulkenberg who in turn ended up with a puncture for his robust efforts) while elsewhere Bruno Senna was renewing a weekend-long acquaintance with the unforgiving barriers around the Singapore street circuit.
All of that changed nothing about Vettel's lead of the race over Button, With Alonso and di Resta leading Nico Rosberg, Kimi Raikkonen, Roman Grosjean, Felipe Mass, Daniel Ricciardo and Bruno Senna, leaving Mark Webber still stuck just outside the points - at least until lap 55, when Webber decisively blasted past the Williams on the run down to turn 7 to claim that solitary championship point. It also denied Williams any return at all on their weekend's efforts, and it seemed almost symbolic when a few minutes later Senna's car lost power and drive and ended up parked in a run-off area.
With all the safety car periods, the race did indeed fail to reach full race distance and hit the two hour limit two laps early. That suited Sebastian Vettel down to the ground as he claimed the chequered flag almost nine seconds ahead of Jenson Button by the end. Button himself had six seconds in hand over Fernando Alonso who took the final podium position, making it the Spaniard's 81st career podium which exceeded the tally of Ayrton Senna. More importantly, it keeps Alonso's championship hopes firmly on track
Vettel's win - which he dedicated on the podium to the memory of Professor Sid Watkins - coupled with Hamilton's early retirement puts the reigning world champion back into second place in the championship battle, 29pts behind Alonso. Hamilton will be even less happy to learn that he has even slipped behind Kimi Raikkonen in the drivers championship after round 14, with six races remaining in the 2012 F1 season.Full race results available
.Full championship points available