Jenson Button took full advantage of another independent strategy call to win his second race of the season at a Chinese Grand Prix played out in hugely variable conditions.

In a thrilling race which lurched from dry to wet and back again at least twice Button once more made his own call on tyre strategy, opting to remain on slick tyres through the first rain shower while other runners, including his teammate and the two Red Bulls, found themselves caught in limbo between the slick and intermediate tyres. Once he had changed onto intermediate tyres, during the second rain spell, the reigning world champion was able to conserve the increasingly delicate rubber on an ever drying track to become the first driver this year to record two wins and to hit back at Red Bull, leading a McLaren 1-2.

Even before the race had the started the changeable conditions had managed to claim their first victim the Virgin Racing team, apparently racked by indecision on which rubber to start Timo Glock on left the German stranded on the grid, the front of his car still held aloft by the jacks. The car was recovered to the pitlane, but would not emerge to start the race.

When the green lights went out it start the race it was Fernando Alonso, starting from third who managed to get into the lead. He darted out to the left of pole-sitter Vettel, easily making it past before the sweeping entry to ever-tightening turn one. But while Alonso was in the lead (only momentarily, his superb getaway owing to a jump start rather than masterful racecraft) Vettel had to deal with his own teammate.

In a move eerily similar to Sepang two weeks ago Webber was able to simply drive up the inside of Vettel, the German perhaps distracted by the unexpected appearance of a Ferrari ahead of him, into the hairpin at turn six Vettel looked to have quickly got back ahead of the Australian, but attention was quickly taken by goings on behind.

Braking for tight right-hander Tonio Liuzzi spun to the inside of the track, perhaps another victim of the early moisture, skating helplessly backwards across the track at the turns apex, smashing into, and almost over, the front of Sebastien Buemi's Toro Rosso, with Kamui Kobayashi caught up in the carnage bringing out the safety car.

That was the signal for many of the leaders to pit for intermediates, Red Bulls decision to queue their cars costing Vettel crucial time, especially after Webber had overshot the pitbox slightly, hitting the front jack. But while a majority of the field came in for new tyres, half a dozen stayed out, with Rosberg heading Button, the two Renaults, de la Rosa and Heikki Kovalainen, the Finn trying exactly the sort of gamble that looks the only way any other the 'expansion' teams will score any points.

With the debris cleared it looked as if they had made the wrong decision. Alonso, at this point yet to have served his penalty for jumping the start, Adrian Sutil and Rubens Barrichello led the intermediate charge though the field, making short work of Vitaly Petrov's Renault to move into the top five.

However, it was there the charge was halted.

Alonso came in for his drive-through penalty, while Sutil found his tyres had already given up their best, Petrov able to power past the Force India down the pit-straight.

The wave of pitstops that followed, as drivers and teams sheepishly swapped back to slick tyres, not only put those yet to stop further ahead, though by this time the Ferrari engine in de la Rosa's Sauber had cried its last but the additional shuffle, depending on how long they stayed out on destroyed treaded tyres gave the Red Bulls and Hamilton a chance to lead their own charge through the field after Hamilton and Vettel had 'raced' each other – albeit on the speed limiters – down the pitlane.

Hamilton snatched past both Sutil, struggling with tyre graining, and Vettel as the two battled into the turn 14 hairpin, Sutil drifting wide and forcing Vettel out with him. Freed from the train Sutil was creating Hamilton was able to show formidable pace, pulling away by more than four seconds, bounding up to Michael Schumacher, in single lap before Vettel could complete his own pass on Sutil.

As the pair of young drivers caught the seven time world champion it was exactly what F1 fans wanted to see when Schumacher returned to the sport, but as Hamilton ranged up to the Mercedes in the braking zones it was hard not to get slightly nervous remembering Schumacher's reputation for rough driving during his first incarnation as one of the fastest drivers in the world. Happily, there was no such nonsense in Shanghai, as the youngsters gave a glaring illustration of the gulf between Schumacher and the latest crop of drivers.

Then there was a change for the lead!

Out of nowhere Rosberg (once more having a stunning drive) had lost his five second lead over Button and the Briton was surging past down that gargantuan back straight.

The rain had arrived – again – and Rosberg had been the unlucky one to find the grip deficiency at turn 11, gliding off onto the paved run off area doing double the damage as it ruined his run through the banked turns 12 and 13 onto the straight.

This time the rain was heavier, Ferrari opting to queue their cars even without a safety car, Fernando Alonso being the first served after sneaking past Massa on his way into the pitlane, while the runners at the front, including Button, finally blinked at came in for inters, though they were able to hold station when the safety car was once more scrambled, this time to recover debris form Jaime Alguersuari's front wing, which he'd damaged while he tried to lap one of the Hispania cars (both of whom would see the checkered flag).

The safety car, which came after 22 of the most hectic laps you're ever likely to see in F1 bunched up the packed, almost entirly neutralising the strategy calls that went before, Alonso up to tenth despite his penalty behind Schumacher, Webber, Hamilton, Vettel, Sutil and the four survivors who had stayed out during the earlier rains, the Lotus having been let down by the team's lack of pace.

The restart saw more chaos and controversy, Button employing unwise, if not questionable tactics, all but stopping as he approached the hairpin sending those behind scattering to avoid each other's gearboxes. It seemed only a matter of time before there was a carbon fibre shower mixed with the rain but the only casualty, somehow, was Webber. The Australian was  spat out wide in the final corner from outside of a three-abreast battle with Hamilton and Vettel, the pair never seemingly more than a few seconds apart – until this point.

While Vettel was stranded in the lower reaches of the top ten Hamilton was able to make his way towards the head of the field, past the two Renaults and Rosberg into second behind Button, with the drizzle, and the dampness on the track it caused here to stay it was more intermediates all round in the final round of pitstops before the race became the kind of tyre-preservation exercise F1 this year seems to create.

With a dry line beginning to appear and everyone's tyres starting to wear worryingly thin it looked a case of everyone choosing to hold station, only Michael Schumacher's progress backwards into tenth place.

However, there was nearly a twist at the end, Hamilton (despite his whining that his tyres were practically bald) slicing into Button's advantage, often at two seconds a lap, the leader himself struggling with tyres, outbraking himself into the hairpin, haemorrhaging four further seconds off his lead which stood at only 1.5 seconds by the end of the race.

Nico Rosberg completed the podium, ahead of Alonso and Kubica. Vitaly Petrov, finishing his first race since graduating from GP2 scored his first points for finishing seventh, recovering from a spin out of fifth place to be one of the last drivers to benefit from Schumacher's struggles. Vettel and Webber would sandwich the Russian, an unsatisfactory end to race they started from the front row – Webber admitting the team were “blown away” by McLaren's pace.