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Vettel was also struggling to keep four useful wheels on his wagon, tyre preservation requiring him to give way to Massa. There was better news for Sergio Perez who continued to lift some of the gloom at McLaren, backing up a decent qualifying performance which brought him ninth on the grid by running with decent pace in seventh in the early stages. The need to preserve tyres with all the durability of a second-hand remould was brought home to roost when the rear-right tyre on Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso delminated - the posh name for falling apart.
And the grandstands were roaring once again moments later when Alonso snatched the lead from Rosberg with an out braking manoeuvre into turn one on lap 13.
Struggling on the hard tyre, Rosberg was soon tumbling through the order after being swallowed up by Vettel, Felipe Massa and Raikkonen.
Hamilton too was making little impression on the harder rubber and the decision not to pit him earlier than his rivals, the 2008 world champion struggling in tenth after the first round of stops.
Remarkably, Button had managed to get back up to ninth before he was finally required to make his second stop.
'I've just been overtaken by a Williams,' moaned Hamilton as the prospect of a four-stop race loomed large for a driver already sick of having to drive to 80 per cent of his capability in an effort to save his precarious Pirellis.
That was quickly followed by, 'I can't drive any slower,' as Hamilton was told to preserve his tyres yet again.
Indeed, any chance Raikkonen held of challenging the Alonso and Massa at the front meant getting by the Red Bull.
More tyre fears for Vettel meant he finally had to give way to his Lotus rival on lap 34, Raikkonen streaking away once the pass was made.
So many pit stops also mean plenty of opportunities for unsafe releases, a case in point being Nico Hulkenberg's Sauber clouting the back of a Toro Rosso as the front jack was removed prematurely. Up the front, strategies were being played out, Alonso snatching first place back easily from Raikkonen after donning new tyres for a third time - a four stopper looking increasingly likely for the Spaniard.
The same happened to Force India's Paul Di Resta in Friday practice, meaning Pirelli have a second major failure to investigate.
With two-thirds of the race gone, and after being told to calm his ardour thus far, Vettel was finally let of the leash by his team after the decision was taken to adopt a four-stop strategy.
'Use up your tyres', the reigning world champion was told. Doubtless music to his ears. Raikkonen, by contrast, was still keeping it neat and tidy in an effort to make a three-stop race work for him.
And with 16 laps to go, all the sums and strategy were mercifully converted into something meaningful on the track as Alonso visited the pits for the fourth and final time, emerging eight seconds ahead of the Raikkonen in third - the man the Spaniard was really racing.
Unfortunately for Raikkonen, the meat in the sandwich was Massa's Ferrari. Thankfully for Lotus, the Brazilian was soon dispatched but not until Alonso had extended the gap by a further two seconds to his Finnish rival.
Further down the field, Hamilton was trundling around in 12th, the Mercedes' one-lap pace a serious disadvantage when it comes to racing – the equation being that the faster your car is the more it destroys its tyres.
At least there was some British cheer for Button, Formula One's smooth operator skilled enough to tip-toe his underperforming McLaren into eighth.
But at the business end Alonso's lead over Raikkonen continued to stretch, denying spectators a barnstorming finish to a chess game of a grand prix.
Taking his second win of the season and his second in the Spanish Grand Prix, Alonso home supporters roared their approval as he took the chequered flag.
For those of a less partisan perspective, lingering questions remained as to whether the current era of tyre-wear governed Formula One represents the kind of racing its worldwide audience really craves.
Seldom has Spain needed such a sense of restoration more. At a time of economic peril and 27 per cent unemployment, Fernando Alonso, the country's beloved prodigal, produced a race of controlled brilliance to win his home grand prix for a second time and transform the grandstands around the Circuit de Catalunya into a tapestry of red and gold.