After practice session mishaps that saw both Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso crash out, Vettel pulled it together on Saturday to qualify once again on pole. Lewis Hamilton started beside him, his teammate Jenson Button just behind in third, and Red Bull's #2 Mark Webber in fourth. Ferrari pilots Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa took fifth and sixth, ahead of Mercedes GP's Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher in seventh and eighth and Force India's Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta rounding out the starting grid's top ten positions.
If Vettel's pole came as no surprise, what shocked the crowds was when the young champ inexplicably spun out on the opening lap, dropping to last place as his rivals zipped by. He limped back to pit lane, only for the Red Bull crew to find his wheel hub damaged beyond repair, forcing him out of the cockpit to watch from the pit wall.
Alonso, meanwhile, overtook Button for second as Schumacher and Rosberg dueled for sixth place. Webber briefly passed Button, only to givve him back third position in a battle that would unfold over the entirety of the race.
Seventeen laps in, Hamilton and Alonso pitted simultaneously from first and second, but the McLaren crew once again trumped Ferrari's in the pits, and Lewis retained his lead. Button and Webber were next in, and the McLaren emerged ahead again as Red Bull struggled to get its remaining driver back out on the circuit.
Buemi was disappointing, forced to retire his Toro Rosso from something of a home race for the Bahrain-based driver, soon to be joined by HRT's Daniel Ricciardo and Virgin's Jerome d'Ambrosio. Meanwhile, William's Pastor Maldonado, STR's Jaime Alguersuari and Renault's Bruno Senna were all cited by race stewards for failing to heed the blue flag instructing them to move aside for lapping frontrunners.
Past the halfway mark, Webber (fifth) was closing in on Massa (fourth), who in turn was hunting down Button (third) in a fiercely contested battle for that podium finish. A series of DRS deployments and pit-stop leapfrogging kept the battle interesting until Massa picked up some debris on the track, spun out, and fell hopelessly behind Button and Webber.
Webber saved his last mandatory pit stop for the final lap, re-emerging in fourth behind Button but ahead of Massa. It was the first podium this season that didn't include at least one Red Bull driver, Hamilton and Button sandwiching Alonso for the trophies.
With both the drivers' and manufacturers' titles long since locked up, ten points separate Alonso (3rd) from Button (2nd) in the standings, leaving the battle for runner-up still in contention as the circus heads to Interlagos for the season-finale Brazilian Grand Prix in two weeks from now.