However, with Ferrari and Mercedes opting for inverse tyre strategies, the ebb and flow of the race would see Hamilton play himself back into contention through the second round of pit-stops.
A race of flashpoints up and down the order, there was drama at the start when Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen collided at turn one, the trio bunched up with one another as Vettel squeezed ahead of Hamilton into the right-hander.
However, a concertina effect would occur when with Bottas clipping the right-rear of Raikkonen’s Ferrari, which in turn sent him into the Red Bull of Verstappen on his outside. That impact would leave Raikkonen and Verstappen with damaged suspension and put them out on the spot, with Bottas carrying on but already out of touch with the leaders as they completed the first lap.
With Vettel quickly putting more than two seconds ahead of Hamilton, the gap would stagnate between the two before Vettel made his first stop on lap 14. Prompting Mercedes to roll the dice by leaving Hamilton out longer in an attempt to give him a stronger chance at the end of the race, the Briton stayed out for a further six laps, leaving him 7.3secs adrift of Vettel.
However, Vettel’s afternoon would hit its first stumbling block when he came up against a stubborn Bottas, ailing with his tyres but proving difficult to overtake for the Ferrari. Bottled up behind the Finn, Vettel would eventually make a pass stick into turn one with a magnificent ‘dummy’ pass up the inside, but it couldn’t stop him from losing four seconds in two laps.
With Hamilton now within range and with the more favourable soft tyre still to fit, Mercedes would go on to take full advantage of a Virtual Safety Car period on lap 36 – prompted by Stoffel Vandoorne going off after a clash with Felipe Massa – to pit for a second time at its conclusion.
Though Ferrari responded straight away the following lap, he would find himself exiting the pit lane as Hamilton came down the home straight, the pair side-by-side as they entered the first corner.
With Vettel holding his inside line, Hamilton tried to stick around the outside but would run out of room as Vettel defended his position and forced the Briton wide. However, with Vettel now on the medium tyre and Hamilton looming with his soft rubber, Hamilton merely waited to regain the benefit of DRS to surge past on lap 44 on the run to turn one.
It would prove to be the definitive move of the race, Hamilton maintaining his tyre life to the end to cross the line a comfortable 3.4secs ahead of Vettel, the Ferrari man tripping over lapped traffic as his challenge faded.
The results sees Hamilton close the gap to Vettel at the head of the overall standings to six points, while Mercedes has eked out an eight point margin over Ferrari in the constructors’ reckoning.
It could have been more had Hamilton’s team-mate Bottas completed what looked likely to be a comfortable third position. However, the Finn’s title hopes would be dealt a blow when he retired on lap 39 due to technical issues.
As a result, it was Daniel Ricciardo that would emerge with a very distant third place finish more than a minute adrift in a race that would see all but the Red Bull driver and Vettel lapped by Hamilton.
Behind him, Force India’s strong start to the season continued with a double top five finish for Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon in fourth and fifth, consolidating the team’s fourth position in the constructors’ reckoning.
Defying his 13th position on the grid, Nico Hulkenberg made them most of a strong start to finish a fine sixth for Renault’s best result since its return to the sport in 2016.
Behind him, Pascal Wehrlein was a tremendous seventh on the road for Sauber, the German making an unusual one-stop strategy work even if he picked up a five-second post-race penalty for a pit entry infringement. Though it would drop him a spot to eighth behind Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz, it was still enough for Sauber’s first points of the season and its best result since 2015.
Despite starting last, Daniil Kvyat made strong progress to finish ninth behind his team-mate, surviving after coming to blows with Kevin Magnussen on the penultimate lap as they disputed the position. A frustrating race for the Dane after an earlier pit-lane altercation with Carlos Sainz, the clash with Kvyat would leave him with a puncture to drop him out of the points, lifting his Haas team-mate Romain Grosjean into tenth.
Elsewhere, Fernando Alonso’s hopes of capitalising on his row four start was ruined at the first corner when he was forced off on the exit of turn two by Massa, in turn running wide to avoid the damaged Verstappen and Raikkonen as they re-joined from their first corner clash.
With the pair making contact, Massa returned to the pit lane with a puncture to keep him out of contention, while Alonso dropped to 11th before steadily slipping back to an eventual 12th.