Lewis Hamilton’s near flawless triumph in Sunday’s dramatic and stirring Chinese Grand Prix has set up a battle royal with Melbourne victory Sebastian Vettel in this year’s drivers’ world championship.
The three-time world champion Briton claimed victory for Mercedes ahead of the Ferrari of the four-time champion German after a sweet-and-sour contest packed with incidents and accidents on a tricky rain-affected track at a cold Shanghai International Circuit.
It was Hamilton’s first win in the new season’s ‘fatter and faster’ era, his fifth in China and the 54th of his career, pulling him level with Vettel at the top of the drivers’ standings.
Both men have 43 points. Mercedes lead Ferrari by one point, 66 to 65, in the constructors’ championship.
Hamilton came home 6.250 seconds clear of Vettel after controlling the race from the start with 19-year-old Dutchman Max Verstappen, who started 16th on the grid, finishing third, narrowly ahead of his Red Bull team-mate Australian Daniel Ricciardo.
For Ricciardo, it was a small triumph to finish following his frustrations at Albert Park where he endured a torrid weekend without finishing the race, but once again Verstappen showed his precocious talent in treacherous conditions.
Finn Kimi Raikkonen came home fifth in the second Ferrari ahead of compatriot Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz finished seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Dane Kevin Magnussen of Haas. Mexican Sergio Perez and his Force India team-mate Frenchman Esteban Ocon completed the top ten.
“I think this will be one of the closest title fights if not the closest I have experienced,” said a delighted Hamilton, who greeted Vettel warmly after the race. “Ferrari have done a great job and it is great that we are both pushing.”
Vettel was also happy after making a strong recovery in a race that started in wet conditions: "The safety car came just as I was about to start to feel the dry tyres were a lot quicker but then I had a very exciting race.
“I was stuck in the train for a little while, but then tried to chase down Lewis. It was a good match. It was good fun."
Verstappen said: "It was a very challenging race, but I really enjoyed it. I think I overtook nine cars in the opening lap so it was a very good race for me!
"I didn't have a lot of track time this weekend because didn't do much in qualifying so I wasn't expecting to finish on the podium having started in 16th."
On a surface that was wet in some places and dry in others, most of the field started on intermediate tyres and Verstappen, who relished the conditions, moved from 16th to seventh with a searing opening lap.
Hamilton controlled proceedings from the front and was never in danger while Vettel, who started second, had to recover from a team strategy error when they pitted him during an early Virtual Safety Car period, shortly before the actual Safety Car came out following a crash by Italian Antonio Giovinazzi of Sauber on lap four.
Vettel dropped to sixth and had to produce some remarkable and brave passing moves to climb back into second place behind Hamilton, the Chinese race producing far more overtaking thrills than the season-opener.
Giovinazzi lost control of his car at the final corner, where he also went off in qualifying. Canadian rookie Lance Stroll of Williams also crashed on the opening lap after a collision with Perez, that accident triggering the VSC that led to Vettel and a clutch of midfield runners pitting to switch to dry tyres.
Vettel produced the most exciting move of the race when he passed Ricciardo on lap 22, the German having forced his way past team-mate Raikkonen two laps earlier.
Vettel went round the Australian on the outside of Turn Five and the pair banged wheels as they raced side by side towards Turn Six where, with the inside line, the Ferrari emerged in front.
A second round of pit stops settled the field for the final part of the race as Hamilton stayed out in front. “That was incredible,” said the Englishman. “That was very tough for all of us.
“We started on ‘inters’ and it was so hard because there were dry patches everywhere, but there were some corners that were wet… But what a great job done by Sebastian and this young dude here!”