And who would have guessed that 1,000 kilometers of innocent, straight-line testing could have proved so beneficial?
Lewis Hamilton, who has lately complained that his Mercedes-AMG Petronas still isn't where he wants it and the tires just aren't right, put his car on pole with nearly a half-second gap to second place, teammate Nico Rosberg. Sebastian Vettel in the Infiniti Red Bull was another tenth back in third, the difference to teammate Mark Webber no more than the thickness of a coat of paint. Daniel Ricciardo continued to show his pace and that of the Toro Rosso, putting the STR8 into fifth behind Webber, the other Aussie also trying to show that he belongs in the vacant seat of the man in front of him come 2014. As usual in recent races, on one side of the Sahara Force India garage Paul di Resta gets punished in qualifying, putting the car fifth on the grid but being sent to the back for being underweight, while on the other side of the garage Adrian Sutil gets to show why the team is fifth in the Constructor's Championship, getting up into sixth on the grid after di Resta's penalty. Romain Grosjean performed the unusual feat of outqualifying teammate Kimi Räikkönen in the Lotus, Fernando Alonso nearly had a heart attack when he could only qualify his Ferrari in ninth, and Jenson Button in the McLaren he described as "just slow" was tenth.
For those who wondered whether Mercedes would fade in the race, which has been the case almost all season, the answer would be "No way." Webber had said he didn't think Mercedes would fall apart after the lights went out, and he was right, Hamilton pulling away from the field to get 2.1 seconds clear by Lap 6. Two laps later Hamilton was at the back of the pack, limping around the entire circuit when his left rear tire blew at the beginning of Lap 8. Hamilton – just being Hamilton – made his way through the field with the help of pace, other punctures and the safety car, to finish fourth.
That would be the story of the race, left rear tires exploding in the worst places and a couple of safety cars. After Hamilton, Felipe Massa suffered the same fate on Lap 9, then Jean-Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso on Lap 14, then Sergio Perez – right in front of Alonso – in the McLaren on Lap 46. Some thought it was the kerbing at Turn 4 – other tires were found to have deep cuts on them – some thought it was tire pressures that were too high. Pirelli said this is a new problem, not related to the delaminations issues of previous races, but we'll have to wait for the results of Pirelli's investigation.
Vettel, who'd passed Rosberg on the Lap 1 to take second, inherited first place and looked like he'd keep it until the end, putting nearly two seconds into Rosberg behind him. A rare mechanical failure got Vettel on Lap 41, his gearbox imploding on the last corner and sending him into retirement on the front straight.
That brought out the Safety Car, which bunched up the field, but Rosberg – who'd been shadowing Hamilton and Vettel and had now inherited first place – didn't let anyone by for the last seven laps of the race, taking the victory ahead of Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso.
As one might say of Webber's entire career, it was a case of 'what could have been' for the man who announced his retirement from F1 just before the race weekend. In the American league in baseball, a player called a "designated hitter" can come in to bat for another player, like a pitcher, who isn't so adept at the plate. Webber might have been helped in so many races if F1 allowed a designated starter, because he got another terrible one, needing a new front wing when he turned in on Grosjean on the very first lap and dropping to 15th. Making the most of the RB9's pace and the safety car periods, almost everything else went right from there, Webber finding himself in second behind Rosberg with a handful of laps remaining. He got within a second of the German but there weren't enough tours for him to make the pass, a second-place finish an awesome recovery after the way things began.
The second Safety Car period was hell on Räikkönen, though, the Finn the only leader not to pit for new tires while track workers removed Vettel's car from the main straight, and telling his team he wasn't sure it was the right thing to do. Webber and Alonso were among those who ducked in for tires, losing positions in the process but storming back to the front on fresh rubber, leaving Räikkönen – who looked set for second place – in fifth at the finish, after Hamilton got him as well. His anger in the post-race interviews was the first emotion we've seen from him since he won in Australia.
Elsewhere, Alonso drove a strong, steady race to pick up third place after demanding "an impeccable strategy," Massa turned a weekend of Free Practice crashes and a sad qualifying effort into a sixth-place finish, Sutil held on for seventh, Ricciardo managed eighth, di Resta grabbed points in ninth after starting at the back, and Nico Hülkenberg gave Sauber something to smile about with one point in tenth.
Rosberg's win gets him up into seventh in the Driver's Championship, but the man who truly benefited from the race was Fernando Alonso, who climbed 15 points closer to Sebastian Vettel by finishing third. Vettel still leads the table with 132 points, with Alonso now less than a race win away at 118 points. Räikkönen also moved closer to the lead, but everyone at the black-and-gold will know he could have driven away from the British Grand Prix with more than the 98 points he currently has. In the Constructor's standings, Infiniti Red Bull sits on 219 points, Mercedes took a chunk out of the leaders and has 171 points, while Ferrari has 168.
Drivers and teams will have just a few nights to recover as the action resumes at the German Grand Prix next weekend. We'll see you then.