Locked together on the front row, Button made the better start and as the pair pushed down the hill towards the first corner, Vettel had to defend. His move was… robust: shades of Senna and Prost in 1990. Button was edged onto the grass and had to back out, losing second to a hard-charging Lewis Hamilton in the second McLaren. The stewards who included the 1980 World Champion Alan Jones decided it had not crossed the nebulous boundary between ‘strong racing’ and ‘hooliganism’.
Behind the first three, Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber held station, everyone got through the first lap unscathed. The opening exchanges saw Vettel pull out enough of a lead over Hamilton to ensure he didn’t become vulnerable to a DRS pass.
The Ferraris swapped places as Alonso found a way past Massa on lap five and Button reclaimed second as Hamilton slowed with a puncture and was forced to pit. It would effectively end his participation at the sharp end, though he would influence the race in other ways later.
Vettel came in at the end of lap nine, complaining about losing rear grip, he swapped for another set of soft tyres. The other race leaders pitted soon after. Vettel came in again from the lead on lap 20, Button stayed out, rocketing around the figure-eight circuit to pit one lap later, his stellar in-lap just got him out in front.
Then attention switched to F1’s favourite dysfunctional couple: Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton. Massa closed up on Hamilton through 130R. He went to the outside coming to the final chicane; Hamilton edged him out and the pair collided. It wasn’t a serious collision but bits of bodywork littered the track. Eventually race control decided there was too much debris on the track and deployed the safety car. It was lap 24 of 53 – end of part one.
The order at the restart was Button, Vettel, Alonso, Webber, Massa, Hamilton. Button backed the pack up to a crawl before punching the accelerator and making a clean break through the Casio Triangle. He soon had a lead of several seconds and never looked troubled.
Vettel came in for a third stop and made his mandatory switch to the medium tyres. He emerged in traffic and with the slower rubber struggled to make an impression.
Alonso had a lap of clean air at the front and made good use of it. He pitted at the end of lap 37 and also emerged in front of Vettel. It gave the crowd something to cheer as Vettel swarmed all over the Ferrari in the DRS zone lap after lap but Alonso wasn’t about to give way and eventually, eyes on the big prize, Vettel was told by the pitwall to back off.
That didn’t keep Alonso from chasing down Button, however. The Briton later admitted that he was struggling a little with his tyres, and needed to manage his fuel. He responded to Alonso’s pace, however, and his penultimate lap was the fastest of the race. In the end he crossed the line a second ahead of Alonso, who in turn was 0.8 seconds ahead of Vettel.
Behind them Mark Webber’s recovery drive bought the second Red Bull home in fourth, ahead of Hamilton, Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa. Sergio Pérez had possibly the drive of the race – largely unseen – to grab eighth for Sauber, Vitaly Petrov’s Renault was ninth and Nico Rosberg took the final point, having started at the back of the grid.
“I really enjoyed it out there,” said Button. “This is one of the most perfect circuits in grand prix racing and also with one of the most special crowds as well… Hopefully we have planted a small good memory in their heads as it has been a very difficult year for them.”
“To win the championship here is fantastic,” said Vettel. “I am just so thankful to everyone in the team. We have got so many people here at the track but also at Milton Keynes working day in day out. We found ourselves in a very, very strong position and it is great to achieve the goal we set ourselves going into this year.
“Congratulations to Jenson, congratulations to Fernando. I think today we saw that it is extremely tight. Tighter than maybe sometimes it looked this year… and the good thing is, it’s not over yet.”
With a Constructors’ Championship still up for grabs, F1 will be racing again in Korea next week, but today was Vettel’s day. Or possibly Button’s.