Verstappen snatched the lead from pole-getter Hamilton at the first braking zone, muscling the championship leader wide and over the kerbs, breaking part of his front wing.
Hamilton didn’t have much time to respond. A pre-race downpour had soaked the track and was creating chaos further down the field, and Nicholas Latifi collided with Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin to send himself into the barriers.
The safety car was called, but the track remained treacherous. Sergio Perez found his way out onto the gravel and picked up a penalty for overtaking cars while the race was neutralised, and Mick Schumacher spun into the wall while just trying to warm his tyres.
The race resumed on lap seven, and Verstappen wasted little time stretching his legs, growing his advantage to more than five seconds after only a couple of laps, but as the circuit dried and the grooved wet-weather tyres lost their tread it was Hamilton who came to the fore, and from lap 20 he began reeling in the Dutchman in anticipation of the pit stop window.
Red Bull Racing, having been mugged for victory in Bahrain through complacency at the pits stops, wasted no time bringing Verstappen in for slick tyres. Hamilton ran another lap with strong pace, but a slow pit stop undid the strategy and spat him back into the race still behind the Dutchman.
Worse, in his haste to challenge for the lead Hamilton locked up his dry-weather tyres on a patch of wet asphalt and slid through some gravel and into the wall. By the time he eased himself out of the barrier and back to the pits he’d dropped to ninth.
Mercedes’s bad luck hadn’t expired yet. Further down the field Valtteri Bottas was battling to retain ninth from Williams driver George Russell when they came together in a ferocious 330-kilometre-per-hour crash.
The young Briton, tipped to take the Finn’s seat next season, had slipstreamed the Mercedes through turn one and was moving around his outside to execute a pass when he felt Bottas jinked to the right to cut him off. He instinctively moved left and onto the painted white line, where his car lost traction and careered into his rival at speed. The two wrecks then sped through the gravel trap and into the barriers.
Each blamed the other, and Russell even charged over to Bottas, who was still strapped in his cockpit, to ask if “he was trying to kill us both”, to which he received a flip of the middle finger. The post-race cooling of tensions did little to change opinions.
The race was suspended to clear the debris, after which Verstappen was free to control the restart without a competitive rival to pressure him, freeing him to gallop to a comfortable 22-second win.
“It was very challenging out there, especially in the beginning,” Verstappen said. “It was very hard to stay on track, to be honest. It was very slippery.”
“I was surprised myself - last year we were struggling a little bit off the line [at the start], but we worked really hard to make that better.
“Everything else went really well today, so I feel really happy with that.”
But while Verstappen was serene in the lead the battle for the podium raged until the end. McLaren’s Lando Norris got the jump on Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc at the restart, but both would ultimately be passed by Hamilton at the end of a mammoth recovery drive that took him from ninth to second in a final 30-lap dash on a single set of tyres.
The Briton also took a bonus point for fastest lap late in the grand prix, ensuring he maintains a one-point lead in the drivers championship.
“It’s the first time I’ve made a mistake in a long time,” he said. “I’m really, really grateful that we got to get going again. To get some points for the team is really important.”
Norris clung on for third despite running on the delicate soft tyre for the last 30 laps.
“It was a long race, a tough one,” he said. “It’s nice to be fighting these guys. It’s nice to be there on merit, there on pure pace. Hopefully we can have some more in the future.”
Ferrari teammates Leclerc and Carlos Sainz showed strongly for fourth and fifth ahead of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, who defended hard against Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly in the last phase of the race.
Kimi Raikkonen finished ninth for Alfa Romeo ahead of Alpine’s Esteban Ocon with the final point of the grand prix.