For 22 laps of the Singapore Grand Prix yesterday, Lewis Hamilton had reduced his points deficit to the World Championship leader, Fernando Alonso. But at the end of an untidy race that went all the way to its two-hour time limit, it was Sebastian Vettel who wore the broadest smile after retirement had left Hamilton 52 points adrift.
Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you. And after fate had made an ursine meal of the McLaren driver, it was in turn devoured by Fernando Alonso, whose progress to the 2012 crown seems almost unstoppable.
Hamilton led from the start and looked completely comfortable keeping Vettel at bay, as Jenson Button moved into third from Pastor Maldonado and Alonso. But then the McLaren's gearbox began leaking oil, and on the 23rd lap it broke completely, realising fears the team had presaged for the component after qualifying.
Was Hamilton's misfortune a self-inflicted wound? He said he had not felt a brush with a wall on his second run in final qualifying, but perhaps it played its part. McLaren thought not, however, having copiously crack-tested everything before the race.
"I began to lose what we call the E-shifts and the shift quality became quite aggressive so I radioed the team and they said I should be able to get to the end of the race," he reported. "But then I lost third gear, and then all the gears went.
"I was hugely disappointed when I got out of the car, but that's racing. We had the pace this weekend, it was quite easy in the position we were in, so I think it would have been a nice result for us. We really couldn't afford this, but it is what it is. The good thing is we have that pace and we've got to go and try and win the next few races. I'll never give up."
When the feisty Maldonado also had to retire after 38 laps with imminent hydraulic failure, Alonso was smiling all the way to the bank, where he made a deposit of another 15 points for a distant third place behind Vettel and Button, who lacked the pace and balance to do anything about the Red Bull. At the front, however, it wasn't a great race.
"This is one of the toughest races of the year," Vettel beamed. "It's very, very long, on a circuit which has so many bumps that there are no places for mistakes. Lewis was trying to save his tyres early on, as were we, so it was very tactical but our pace was there. After Lewis retired, we could have an answer every time Jenson was going quick. I'm very happy with the result."
As was Alonso. "In Monza Lewis won and Sebastian retired, here Lewis retired and Sebastian won, so it's OK for me if they keep doing this," the Spaniard said with a smirk.
"We were not very competitive this weekend so this was definitely the best we could hope for. My start was so-so, then I lost a position to [Paul] di Resta but recovered it in the second corner, then fought with Maldonado until the safety car arrived at the worst moment for us. We had stopped five laps before it, whereas many others stopped under it and got their stops for free.
"But again this was a very positive weekend. We lost points to only one of the four other contenders, and increased our advantage over the others."
Behind the Spaniard, Scottish sophomore Di Resta drove to a superb fourth-place finish for the Silverstone-based Sahara Force India team.
Vettel was blissfully unaware of the most dangerous part of his race, which came just before the restart after the first safety car intervention. As he braked hard and then accelerated before the start line, he nearly caught Button napping and the Englishman was lucky to avoid running into him. Over the radio, Button reported: "That was very stop-start. I know you have control of the restart as leader, but when you go, you go..." Later, like the good PR man that he is, he amended his remarks.
"Seb accelerated and braked for the right-hander and I just didn't expect such a speed difference. I locked up and just missed the rear of his car; it could have been embarrassing."
After the race, however, both drivers were called before the stewards who had already been overworked investigating separate incidents on this tight track, in which Michael Schumacher had slammed into the back of an innocent Jean-Eric Vergne, triggering another safety car intervention immediately after the first, and then individual clashes between Felipe Massa and Bruno Senna, and Mark Webber and Kamui Kobayashi.
Schumacher was rightly given a 10-grid place penalty for hitting Vergne, but after a lot of deliberation which lasted more than an hour, the stewards decided it would serve no purpose to give Vettel a penalty for what was just another racing incident. It was generally adjudged to have been the fair outcome.
Before the race, the Formula One fraternity had held a minute's silence on the grid for the late Professor Sid Watkins, the sport's official medic and aggressive safety crusader who died last week. He was thus accorded an honour previously conferred only on Ayrton Senna and Princess Diana. Afterwards Vettel dedicated his victory "to a special man, who will be remembered. He's one of the biggest reasons why we can go out on a circuit as challenging as this and be safe."
1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 2hr 00min 26.144sec;
2 J Button (GB) McLaren 2:00:35.103;
3 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 2:00:41.371;
4 P di Resta (GB) Force India 2:00:45.207;
5 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 2:01:00.928;
6 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus F1 Team 2:01:01.903;
7 R Grosjean (Fr) Lotus F1 Team 2:01:02.842;
8 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 2:01:08.973;
9 D Ricciardo (Aus) Scuderia Toro Rosso 2:01:11.964;
10 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 2:01:13.319;
11 S Perez Mex Sauber-Ferrari 2:01:16.763;
12 T Glock (Ger) Marussia 2:01:58.062;
13 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 2:02:03.285;
14 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Force India 2:02:05.557;
15 H Kovalainen (Fin) Caterham 2:02:14.111;
16 C Pic (Fr) Marussia 2:02:39.069;
17 P de la Rosa (Sp) HRT-F1 at one lap;
18 B Senna (Br) Williams at two laps;
19 V Petrov (Rus) Caterham at two laps.
Not Classified: 20 J-E Vergne (Fr) Scuderia; Toro Rosso 38 laps completed; 21 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 38 laps; 22 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 36 laps; 23 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-F1 30 laps; 24 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 22 laps.
World Championship standings:
1 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 194pts;
2 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 165;
3 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus F1 Team 149;
4 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 142;
5 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 133;
6 J Button (GB) McLaren 119,
7 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 93;
8 R Grosjean (Fr) Lotus F1 Team 82;
9 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 65;
10 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 51;
11 P di Resta (GB) Force India 44;
12 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 43;
13 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 35;
14 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Force India 31;
15 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 29;
16 B Senna (Br) Williams 25;
17 J-E Vergne (Fr) Scuderia Toro Rosso 8;
18 D Ricciardo (Aus) Scuderia Toro Rosso 6;
19 T Glock (Ger) Marussia 0;
20 H Kovalainen (Fin) Caterham 0;
21 V Petrov (Rus) Caterham 0;
22 J d’Ambrosio (Bel) Lotus F1 Team 0;
23 C Pic (Fr) Marussia 0;
24 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-F1 0;
25 P de la Rosa (Sp) HRT-F1 0.
1 R Bull 298pts;
2 McLaren 261;
3 Ferrari 245;
4 Lotus F1 Team 231;
5 Mercedes GP 136;
6 Sauber-Ferrari 100;
7 Force India 75;
8 Williams 54;
9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 14;
10 Marussia 0;
11 Caterham 0;
12 HRT-F1 0.