After recent Grands Prix in which Mercedes had apparently shown they had solved their tyre degradation problems, pole sitter Lewis Hamilton must have been pretty confident of handing the Silver Arrows victory on home soil last Sunday.
However, the start of what appears to be a European heatwave put paid to that. Track temperatures rose to 43 degrees by race start, meaning the soft tyres would grain less and, importantly for Mercedes, the mediums would have more thermal degradation.
That, and a bogged-down start, left Hamilton out of the running from the off – but it was the safety car on lap 24 that turned the race on its head for the rest.
Before that, Red Bull and Vettel were right on strategy.
Pirelli’s predicted optimum race plan was a two-stopper, starting on the soft tyre used for qualifying, changing to the mediums after around six laps then stopping for a second set around lap 32 or 33 and running through to the end.
Romain Grosjean was shaping up to be Vettel’s closest challenger, sitting 3.39 seconds behind the Red Bull having made his soft tyres last 12 laps. Kimi Raikkonen, in the second Lotus, was 15.38 seconds off the lead in third.
It was Vettel’s job now to manage the gaps and continue to play out the optimum strategy, but with Grosjean clearly having the faster car the next stop would be crucial.
But then the Marussia of Jules Bianchi came to a halt, briefly burst into flames and, with the driver out of the cockpit, rolled back onto the track. The race organisers quickly called for the safety car and the race was turned on its head.
A pit stop costs around 16.5 seconds at the Nurburgring, but with the safety car out it is effectively free, because the cars are circulating so much slower.
It was a no-brainer to make the stop - but the timing could not have been worse.
Pitting on lap 24 meant the medium tyres fitted then would have to last for 36 laps. For most cars, that is impossible, particularly in the hot temperatures seen last weekend.
Red Bull decided there and then that there was no way they could gamble on making it to the end, so they fitted a set of used medium tyres and saved a new set to use at the end of the race.
Lotus did the opposite and fitted new mediums to both of their cars to give them a greater chance of making the finish.
Vettel maintained the lead through the safety car period and it was Lotus who made the next move, pitting Grosjean from second on lap 40. Vettel shadowed him and stopped one lap later.
Grosjean and Lotus had performed a perfect final in lap and stop, but Red Bull and Vettel responded with a similarly perfect performance. Vettel maintained his small advantage - but in pitting he handed the race lead to Raikkonen.
The question now was could the Finn go the distance?
“We were thinking (when we stopped) that the Lotus might try and brave it out to the end,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner. “Once Grosjean stopped it made perfect sense for us to cover him, but the risk was then conceding the lead to Kimi if he didn't need to stop.
"He was looking in pretty good shape at that stage, so having covered Grosjean we then focused on keeping the gap to Kimi to less than a pit stop.”
It was a tough call, but in the end Lotus decided it was too risky to stay out and pitted Raikkonen on lap 49.
He came out just under four seconds behind Vettel with 10 laps to go. If he’d had 11 laps, he might have done it. But he had 10. And he didn’t quite get past.
So in retrospect, could Raikkonen have got to the end - and would it have been worth a gamble?
Memories of Shanghai 2012 certainly influenced Lotus’ decision to pit Raikkonen. In that race, his tyres fell off the cliff towards the end and the team were left red faced when he tumbled from second to 12th in two laps.
Yes, Lotus wanted to win the race, but they also had half an eye on the bigger picture – losing points like that simply could not happen. Not with them still thinking they have a chance in the title race.
In the end, they opted for a safe second with a possible late challenge for victory instead of gambling to hold out for the win.
It was the sensible play – but in retrospect, the fact that Force India driver Paul di Resta and McLaren’s Sergio Perez both managed to last the 36 laps on sets of tyres fitted when the safety car came out suggested that perhaps it was the wrong one.
That we will never know – but for Lotus, better have 18 points than walk away with nothing...