Fernando Alonso claimed his 27th career victory at a wet Silverstone to surpass Jackie Stewart in the all-time standings.
The Ferrari driver drove flawlessly as the track dried to head home Vettel and Webber – who ignored team orders to hold station behind the championship leader. The German looked set for a seventh win this season until he relinquished the lead following another Red Bull pitstop blunder.
Lewis Hamilton bravely held onto fourth from Felipe Massa after a titanic battle between the two saw the Brazilian pass the McLaren at the penultimate corner only for Hamilton to muscle his way back in front.
The race started in bizarre circumstances. A pre-race shower had soaked the second half of the track but the first half was bone-dry leading to all drivers using intermediate tyres.
Vettel surged in front at the first corner after pole-sitter Webber got bogged down.
Hamilton surged up from tent to sixth on the first lap before overtaking team-mate Jenson Button and Massa in quick succession. And on lap 15, soon after pitting for dry tyres, he expertly passed Alonso on the wet inside line into Copse.
Whilst the track was wet the Red Bulls dominated opening up a ten-second gap back to the chasing pack but when the drier line appeared Alonso became the quickest man on the track.
Alonso started to pump in fastest laps, closing on Hamilton and re-passing him on lap 24, and then on the Red Bulls.
He and Vettel came in on the same lap, 27, for their penultimate stops, and a delay fitting the left-rear wheel to the Red Bull enabled Alonso to pass Vettel in the pits and take the lead.
The mistake left Vettel third and chasing Hamilton but he could not find a way past despite stalking him for several laps.
Instead the team switched strategy and brought the world champion in a lap early and it proved crucial in allowing him to jump the Englishman.
Hamilton was still on course for third until he received a radio message telling him that fuel levels were critical and told him to slow down and it allowed Webber to snatch the final podium spot.
The Australian immediately set after Vettel and with three laps left was right behind the German. Despite orders from team boss Christian Horner to “maintain the gap”, Webber tried in vain to pass.
When asked about the incident, the Australian was unequivocal. He said: “I’m not fine with it, no. [If] Fernando retires on the last lap, we’re battling for victory.
“Of course I ignored the team and I was battling to the end. I was trying to do my best with the amount of conversation on the radio.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said he understood Webber’s frustration but added: “We cannot give away a load of points. We did not want to see our drivers in the fence at some time in the last two laps, which is how it would have ended up.
“Mark is not out of the championship race but we could not afford to risk losing points. Mark should be fine with that, he is a team player. Second and third is a very strong result.”
The team orders mean that Vettel increased his championship lead to 80 points with Webber his nearest challenger.
But he was wary of Ferrari’s new threat. He said: “I think you have to accept fair and square Ferrari beat us today.
“There has been a bit of a trend over the last couple of races, they have been very strong on race days, so it shows us we need to keep pushing and improving the car.”
Alonso though was cautious about his title prospects: “There are not championship thoughts because we know the gap is massive.”
Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg was sixth, from Sauber’s Sergio Perez, Renault’s Nick Heidfeld, Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher and Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari.
It was a disappointing day for home-favourite Button who had to retire on lap 39 after a wheel fell off following a pitstop. The right-front wheel nut was not in place before he was released and the McLaren driver ground to a halt at the end pf the pitlane.
Button said: “It is very disappointing. In front of my home crowd, I was enjoying the race, my pace was good.
“The guy on the front right lost a wheel nut and he went to get another one but as he turned I think the lollipop man thought we were good to go.
“I’m sorry for the fans that we couldn’t do more. This seems to be the way of it at British Grands Prix for me, but I’ll try again next year.”
McLaren and Sauber were fined by motorsport’s governing body the FIA following the race, both found guilty of unsafe pit-stop releases.
McLaren were fined 5,000 euros (£4,433) for the problem with Button’s car, while Sauber were fined 20,000 euros (£17,773) after the team released Kamui Kobayashi into the path of Williams’ Pastor Maldonado.