Nico Rosberg won a thrilling British Grand Prix for Mercedes-Benz today, but a succession of dramatic tyre failures almost turned the race into a farce and scuppered the prospects of Rosberg's team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton and Rosberg had earned Mercedes a front row shut-out in qualifying, but with Sunday being blessed with sunny, warm conditions, it remained to be seen whether the Anglo-German team would maintain a competitive race pace or fall foul to their usual tyre wear issues.
Most of the leaders started on the softer of the two Pirelli tyre compounds. Hamilton made a perfect start, but Rosberg got too much wheel spin and lost second place to Sebastian Vettel. Adrian Sutil – the highest-placed Force India driver on the grid after team-mate Paul di Resta was disqualified from qualifying when his car was found to be underweight – slotted into fourth ahead of Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo.
Mark Webber, starting from fourth, also made a sluggish getaway and sustained front-wing damage after getting clipped by Romain Grosjean, who in turn was kinking left to avoid Jenson Button as the field streamed through the first right-hander.
It was similar to the damage he picked up in the previous race in Canada, and the team opted to leave him out on track until the first pitstops, when they changed the wing. Up at the front, Hamilton got the hammer down to establish a gap over Vettel, ensuring that the German was too far behind to take advantage of DRS.
Just as the Briton was consolidating his position, however, the left-rear tyre of his Mercedes failed on the Wellington Straight. It left him with almost three-quarters of a lap to complete at low speed before his team could replace the ruined rubber and dropped him right out of contention.
Two laps later, Massa suffered a similar tyre failure on the left-rear corner of his Ferrari, and when Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso also had a high-speed deflation, it was clear that there was a widespread problem.
The safety car was deployed so that mangled tyre carcasses could be retrieved from the racetrack and the teams, organisers and Pirelli technicians could puzzle over what was going wrong. It was suspected that a kerb on the one of the track's high-speed corners was causing the issues, which was of little consolation to poor Hamilton, who had dropped out of the points by the time he resumed.
After a round of precautionary pitstops from the leaders, Vettel was left leading Rosberg by about three seconds.
That situation remained until, with just 11 laps to go, Vettel's car suddenly slowed with a lack of drive. He ground to a halt near the start-finish line, in a dangerous place, so the safety car was put out to give marshals the opportunity to clear the stricken Red Bull.
Rosberg, Alonso and Webber – who had made steady progress up the order after his first lap dramas – were all called in for precautionary tyre changes, but curiously Lotus didn't instruct Kimi Räikkönen to pit.
Stopping for rubber cost Webber and Alonso track position, but when the race resumed for a manic seven-lap sprint, the drivers on fresher tyres were able to make rapid progress up the order.
Webber charged past Sutil and Räikkönen to take over second place and the chase of Rosberg. Alonso made short work of the cars ahead of him to move up to third. Although Hamilton didn't change tyres during the safety car period, he shrewdly remained on Alonso's tail and followed him past the likes of Ricciardo, Sutil and Räikkönen to assume fourth.