For Scuderia Ferrari, Saturday night's qualifying session was a mixed bag. Fernando Alonso qualified on pole for the second time in a row, while Felipe Massa – suffering an apparent gearbox malfunction on his first qualifying lap – was relegated to the back of the field. With the prospective ten-position penalty bearing no subsequent effect, Massa took a fresh engine to ensure no further mechanical issues.
In between the two Ferraris, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel – who has still claimed more pole positions than any other driver this season – qualified second. McLaren's twin champions, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, lined up behind Alonso and Vettel in third and fourth, respectively, ahead of Red Bull's Mark Webber in fifth and Williams' Rubens Barrichello in sixth. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Robert Kubica (Renault), Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) and Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) rounded out the top ten.
With the formation lap completed without incident and the race getting underway, Alonso held on to his lead against a charging field of challengers into the first lap. By the next, his wingman had already managed to fight his way up from dead-last 24th to 21st on one of the most difficult passing circuits on the calendar, strategically pitting right away to get his mandatory tire-swap out of the way. But as Massa charged from the rear, Nick Heidfeld – recently hired
to take Pedro de la Rosa's seat at Sauber – collided with Force India's Tonio Liuzzi. The Italian's race was over, while the German made it back to pit lane where he swapped his broken nosecone, only to suffer from a prolonged pit stop due to a jammed tire gun. That forced Heidfeld to pit yet again on the following lap.
The incident brought the safety car out for three laps, wherein Webber was the only one of the top eight to pit together with the mid-fielders and backmarkers. Nine laps into the race, Alonso still lead Vettel, Hamilton and Button. Rosberg was now running in fifth, ahead of Kunica, Barrichello, Webber and Kobayashi to tenth. Massa, meanwhile, was already up to fourteenth place, an admirable ascension from his qualifying troubles.
Championship frontrunner Webber passed Schumacher for eighth place on lap 11. Vettel, warned by his team not to overheat the brakes, reassured his strategists that he wasn't pushing too hard even as he set a new fastest lap time.
Lap 16 saw both Hulkenberg and Massa finally get by Timo Glock, who was getting the most out of his subpar Virgin-Cosworth. Little action ensued, however, until the pit stops started around lap 29. Hamilton went in from fourth and came out in eighth, a position then taken by Button, who pitted from fifth. The heart-stopper came as Alonso and Vettel headed into pit lane simultaneously, handing the fight over to their pit crews. Alonso emerged first, holding onto the lead over Vettel.
Following a series of other shakeups from pit lane, excitement ensued when Kobayashi skidded into the wall around a blind corner. HRT's Bruno Senna, failing to see the wreckage, careened straight into the Sauber. Both were out of the race, and the safety car was deployed for the second time, prompting a few more pit stops. HRT's fortunes continued to plummet when Christian Klien, sitting in for a sick Yamamoto, was forced to retire from the team's garage.
The safety car was recalled a few rounds later on lap 35, with Alonso still leading from the start, Vettel in tow with Webber having ascended to third. Hamilton now trailed in fourth ahead of Button in fifth and Rosberg in sixth, followed by Kubica, Barrichello, Force India's Adrian Sutil, Hulkenberg and Massa to tenth.
Disaster (and excitement) struck the following lap when Hamilton saw an opening to get by Webber. Title prospects hanging in the balance, Lewis tried to close the door on Webber, but ultimately wasn't quite past him. Webber tossed Hamilton off the line, the McLaren champion's race ending much as it had in the last round at Monza
. Webber sailed away unscathed. An investigation was launched by the race stewards, who ultimately cleared Webber of any wrongdoing.
The same would apply just a lap later when Schumacher and Heidfeld had at it. The two collided, and the senior Mercedes pilot took Heidfeld out of the race. No penalty was applied following the ensuing investigation.
Kubica headed into the pits on lap 46, giving up seventh position to swap out a punctured tire. He rejoined in thirteenth, and with fresh rubber, the Polish driver proceeded to pass car after car to reclaim his place. First, he dismissed Toro Rosso's Sebastian Buemi, then his own teammate, Vitaly Petrov, followed by Massa, Hulkenberg and Sutil.
Heikki Kovalainen spun his Lotus a few laps later, narrowly avoiding a collision with Buemi. The Lotus subsequently burst into flames as the Finn coolly found the right spot to pull over. Instead of bolting for safety, Kovalainen grabbed a trackside fire extinguisher and put out the blaze himself in the grandest of old-school style.
With just one lap to go, Vettel closed in on Alonso's Ferrari, but it couldn't get by. The double-champion Spaniard claimed his second consecutive victory, winning uninterrupted from pole and setting the fastest lap of the day in the process. Talk about a red-letter day.
The remaining points went to Vettel (2nd), Webber (3rd), Button (4th), Rosberg (5th), Barrichello (6th), Kubica (7th), Sutil (8th), Hulkenberg (9th), and Massa (10th). With just four races to go, the adjusted championship standings keep Mark Webber – a winner of the day in his own right – still in the lead for the title with 202 points, but second-place Alonso is now in hot pursuit with 191. Hamilton, fresh from two consecutive DNFs, sits in third with 182 points, Vettel just behind in fourth with 181, Button in fifth with 177 and Felipe Massa in sixth with 125. The combined scores, meanwhile, have Red Bull in the lead for the constructors' championship with 383, followed by McLaren with 359 and Ferrari with 316. Join us again on October 10 for the Japanese Grand Prix from Suzuka.