An epic race encouraged optimism for a genuine title tussle in Formula 1® in 2021, with drama right from the outset and Hamilton fighting hard to rescue a superb second-placed finish.
The defending champion had started from pole, with Verstappen qualifying in third, behind Red Bull colleague Sergio Perez.
But Verstappen claimed the lead from Turn One in the rain at Imola, racing up alongside Hamilton and forcing his championship rival wide, where he sustained right wing damage.
While chaos ensued behind them, Hamilton held off Charles Leclerc to ensure he remained the biggest threat to Verstappen, with a tactical battle briefly allowed to develop.
Verstappen pitted first on lap 28, with Hamilton following a lap later and coming out behind the Dutchman following a slow stop.
But a manic spell then shook up the race again. First, Hamilton ran off into a gravel trap and desperately sought to reverse back onto the track.
The Briton was limping back to the pit lane a lap down under a shower of sparks, emitted by his Silver Arrow, when a further incident brought out the safety car.
Bottas collided with Mercedes prospect George Russell, driving for Williams, and both cars crashed in spectacular fashion, with the drivers emerging from the wreckage to angrily blame one another over the team radio.
The red flag soon followed, with wreckage spread across the track and a 30-minute suspension required, giving Hamilton time to regroup.
He resumed from ninth, able to unlap himself, with Verstappen forced to build a healthy lead again from Lando Norris after a slightly nervy restart.
Verstappen had retired at each of the three Italian races in 2020 but avoided a similar fate this time and the focus in the closing stages was instead on Hamilton's progress.
The Mercedes man picked off his opponents one by one, eventually streaking past Leclerc to move into position for a podium place once more.
Only Norris in the McLaren stood between Hamilton and a phenomenal P2 and he patiently chased down his compatriot to limit the damage and somehow emerge from this race a point ahead of Verstappen.
'AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT'
As the race got back underway following his crash, Russell posted on Twitter: "Thanks for all the messages. I'm fine, just disappointed.
"At the end of the day, it's an unfortunate incident. You're entitled to defend your position. But at 330kph, you have to respect the speed and the conditions when doing so. Gutted for the team. They deserved more today."
That was the second crash that ruled a driver out, with Nicholas Latifi earlier colliding with Nikita Mazepin to almost instantly exit the grand prix.
The subsequent safety car brought its own share of incident – Perez hit with a 10-second penalty after running wide and overtaking two cars to recover fourth.
Mick Schumacher went into a wall under the safety car, meanwhile, and lost his front wing.
TONE SET BEFORE THE START
The weather was always likely to cause havoc and the drivers took to the track to test their tyres ahead of the race. Even that did not go smoothly.
Fernando Alonso crashed into the wall, while the brakes on the Aston Martin cars caught fire.
That issue meant Sebastian Vettel had to start from the pitlane, and he was later given a 10-second stop/go penalty, too, for failing to have his wheels fitted in time.
Bottas sustained a puncture on his way to the grid and then Leclerc span on the formation lap. It was one of those days.
IN THE POINTS
- Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
- Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +22.000s
- Lando Norris (McLaren) +23.702s
- Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +25.579s
- Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +27.036s
- Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +51.220s
- Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +51.909s
- Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +52.818s
- Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo) +64.773s
- Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +65.704s
- Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 44
- Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 43
- Lando Norris (McLaren) – 27
- Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 20
- Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 16
- Mercedes – 60
- Red Bull – 53
- McLaren – 41
- Ferrari – 34
- Aston Martin – 7
Hamilton will be looking for redemption at the Portuguese Grand Prix on the first weekend in May, with Verstappen ready to contend.