The title protagonists raced each off the track as much as on it. They hit each other twice over the course of the unpredictable 50-lap epic in Jeddah, with Hamilton crossing the line with front wing damage and Verstappen weighing himself down with a five-second penalty for passing off the road and a summons to the stewards for dangerous driving.
The grand prix hinged on a pair of red flags early in the race. The first, on lap nine after Mick Schumacher lost control of his car at high speed at turn 27, Switched Verstappen into the lead ahead of Hamilton - the Briton had made his pit stop shortly before behind the safety car, whereas Verstappen was yet to pit, getting a free tyre change while the race was stopped.
Hamilton was enraged, but he put his frustration to good use at the standing restart, getting a great launch to ease ahead of Verstappen at the first turn.
But Verstappen wasn’t prepared to concede to his own tardy start. The Dutchman cut the corner and rejoined just ahead, forcing Hamilton to hit the brakes and drop to third behind Esteban Ocon.
A four-car crash stopped the race a second time before the end of that lap. Sergio Perez put himself out of the race when he accidentally pincered Charles Leclerc against the wall, and Nikita Mazepin rear-ended George Russell at speed as the Briton slowed to avoid the carnage. Only Leclerc was able to make it to pit lane to continue with the race.
Verstappen was demoted to third behind Hamilton on the restart grid for passing Hamilton off the track, but a great launch got him back into the lead immediately, taking the inside line as Hamilton went wide to cover Ocon, sandwiching the Mercedes in the process.
Hamilton recovered quickly, but his pursuit of Verstappen was interrupted by several virtual safety cars that neutralised the race pace, with a series of skirmishes lower in the field resulting in bits of bodywork strewn over the track and requiring cleaning.
It took until lap 37 for Hamilton to fire his first shot around the outside of the first turn, but Verstappen ran them off track. They collided as they left the road, enabling the Dutchman to hold the lead, but the FIA considered it an unfair move and ordered Verstappen to cede the place.
Having been told by his engineer to let Hamilton past “strategically”, Verstappen slowed dramatically on the back straight, shifting down five gears as Hamilton rocketed towards him.
Confused by the sudden deceleration and not told that he was being waved through, Hamilton hesitated, causing Verstappen to slow more in the middle of the track. Suddenly out of road, Hamilton ran into the back of the Red Bull Racing car, damaging his front wing.
“I didn’t quite understand why all of a sudden he hit the brakes pretty heavily,” Hamilton said afterwards.
Verstappen protested: “I slowed down, I wanted to let him by. I was on the right but he didn’t want to overtake, and we touched. I don’t really understand what happened there.”
It wasn’t enough for race control, and Verstappen was asked again to switch places. This time he slowed less dramatically before the last corner but ensured he kept up enough momentum to take the place back down the main straight, holding the lead.
But the FIA still wasn’t satisfied, and finally on lap 43 Hamilton got past for good, running the Dutchman off the road at the final corner to ensure he couldn’t follow down the main straight.
Verstappen tried to follow, but his tyres were finished from the hard defence, and he drifted off the pace to secure a safe second, a five-second penalty for passing Hamilton off track not affecting his finishing position.
Hamilton was satisfied by his triumph, having reduced to zero the points gap between him and his rival with one race to go, but he left little doubt his view of Verstappen’s driving.
“I’ve been racing a long time, but that was incredibly tough,” he said. “I tried to be as sensible and tough as I could be out there.
“With all my race experience over the years, I was just keeping my car on track and staying clean. It was difficult.”
Verstappen kept his comments veiled, extending only to say he didn’t understand why he was served so many penalties through the race.
“It was quite eventful,” he said. “A lot of things happened which I don’t fully agree with, but it is what it is.”
The news was worse for Red Bull Racing, with Valtteri Bottas snatching third from Ocon by 0.1 seconds as they crossed the line, extending Mercedes’s championship advantage to 28 points.
Ocon finished a heartbroken but nonetheless impressive fourth for Alpine, virtually guaranteeing the team fifth in the standings ahead of AlphaTauri.
McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth ahead of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and Ferrari teammates Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, the Spaniard getting a great start and surviving the early skirmishes to rise from 15th to eighth.
Antonio Giovinazzi scored his first points since May with ninth ahead of Lando Norris.