SILVERSTONE, England – Nico Rosberg won an eventful British Grand Prix on Sunday, after four drivers including early race leader Lewis Hamilton were hit by tire blowouts and Sebastian Vettel retired while leading with 10 laps remaining due to mechanical problems.
With Vettel's Red Bull teammate Mark Webber closing fast, Rosberg managed to win his second race of the year and third of his career by 0.7 seconds in a nail-biting finish - though he then had to survive a stewards inquiry.
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who started ninth, made a late charge up the grid and got past Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen with two laps remaining to claim third. Hamilton also recovered to finish fourth, after his blown tire sent him to the back of the grid in the eighth lap.
Soon after celebrating, the Mercedes driver risked seeing his victory slip away when he was referred to the stewards for not slowing down for yellow flags in turns 3 and 5. The stewards ruled that Rosberg "did not make a significant reduction in speed" but would only receive a reprimand, or warning. After three reprimands during a season, drivers are given a 10-place grid penalty. This was Rosberg's first.
"Fantastic, it's very special," said Rosberg, who also won in Monaco and in China last year. "Our team has done such a fantastic job. We have such momentum at the moment, progressing all the time."
It seemed as if Hamilton might just win his first British Grand Prix since 2008 after getting a great start and leading three-time world champion Vettel.
But on the eighth lap, Hamilton's left rear tire exploded and he was forced to pit. Two laps later, Ferrari's Felipe Massa lost his left rear tire and spun out. Five laps later, Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne also lost his rear tire, with the rubber exploding across the track.
That brought out the safety car until lap 22 when normal racing resumed.
It also prompted several drivers after the race to warn of the dangers of exploding tires — which affected McLaren driver Sergio Perez on both Saturday and Sunday — while the sport's ruling FIA ordered tire supplier Pirelli to attend a meeting on the issue on Wednesday.
Tire troubles have been a running theme all season, with several teams led by Red Bull claiming the Pirelli tires wear out too quickly and force drivers to pit more often than in previous seasons. Pirelli and Mercedes were reprimanded earlier this month by the sport's governing body after being found guilty of conducting an in-season test on the tires.
Following Sunday's events, the ruling International Automobile Federation (FIA) has ordered Pirelli to attend a meeting in Germany on the issue on Wednesday.
Pirelli, for its part, acknowledged there have "been some issues" with the left rear tires. Pirelli's Paul Hembery said it was "taking the situation very seriously" and "currently investigating all tires to determine the cause as soon as possible ahead of the next grand prix in Germany."
Hembery could not say what caused the tires to explode but has ruled out a new bonding process which was introduced for this race. He also said "some aspects" of the circuit could be to blame without elaborating.
Hamilton was still clearly angry after the race.
"The safety is the biggest issue, it's unacceptable," Hamilton told the BBC. "Four blowouts is unacceptable. It's only when someone gets hurt that someone will be doing something about it. I think it's a waste of time talking to the FIA, and if they don't do anything that says a lot about them."
Vergne said: "It's just a shame that this sort of problem can waste a whole weekend's work for the team. I am very upset about it and something needs to be done about it soon."
TV pictures of Turn 4 on the Silverstone circuit, where some of the incidents took place, indicated the sidewall of the tires could have been punctured by a sharp part of the curb.
After the restart, Vettel began extending his lead over Rosberg and appeared set for a fourth win. But on the 42nd lap, Vettel's car came to a stop after his fifth gear broke and Rosberg took the lead. That brought out the safety car for a second time for three laps.
When it went off with seven laps to go, it triggered some of the best racing all day. Alonso was among the most aggressive, passing McLaren's Jenson Button, Force India's Adrian Sutil and eventually Raikkonen for third. Webber also charged past Raikkonen into second with four laps remaining. Hamilton also benefited from the safety car going out twice, rising from last on the grid to ninth by lap 45 and then got past Sutil for fourth with a lap remaining.
"There are massive positives to take out the team this weekend," Hamilton said. "Nico won and we got some good points and we are second in the constructors' championship. I'm grateful the car was strong I was able to come through the field and the right things happened. It was bad luck when the tire goes and you are in the lead. I was grateful that I had achieved things that helped me along the way."
The wild finish leaves the championship wide open.
Despite his late exit, Vettel remains the leader in the drivers' championship with 132 points. His lead, though, is down to 21 points over Alonso on 111 with 11 races remaining.
Raikkonen is third with 98 and Hamilton fourth with 89, some 43 points behind Vettel.