In a nail-biting finale, Verstappen’s car looked to have the speed to secure his 12th grand prix win and in the closing stages the Dutchman did briefly take the lead, only to hand it back to Hamilton after running wide off the track.
“Amazing job guys,” said Hamilton, talking to the Mercedes team radio. “I’m so grateful. Everybody back in the factory … working so hard. I know we weren’t quick enough but we managed to do it.”
Bidding to win a record eighth world title, Hamilton appears to have a real fight on his hands given the speed of Verstappen’s Red Bull car.
“It’s of course a shame, but you also have to see the positive,” Verstappen told Sky Sports. “We’re putting the fight on to them (Mercedes), so it’s great to start the year like that.”
Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas finished third, though he was 37 seconds adrift.
“I’m disappointed with how it went,” said Bottas. “Lewis and I had different strategies today — from my side things could have been better.”
This was Hamilton’s 96th grand prix win and his first season-opening victory since 2015.
“Max was all over me right at the end, but just managed to hold him off, one of most difficult races I have had for a while,” said Hamilton.
The opening lap had to be halted within a minute after Russian Nikita Mazepin, who was making his F1 debut, crashed his Haas car into the barriers at Turn Three.
In last season’s Bahrain GP, Romain Grosjean’s car burst into flames after going into the barriers at the same corner on the opening lap.
The Frenchman’s Haas car split in half from the force of hitting the race barriers and was enveloped in flames, before Grosjean made a miraculous escape.
Verstappen had started in pole, but with the Dutchman and Hamilton each twice pitting the race seesawed until the very end.
The F1 season’s second race is the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola in Italy on April 16.