Jubilant Hamilton punched the air as he produced a thrilling fightback after losing his lead to Vettel to seal what could prove to be a pivotal win in this year’s see-saw championship.
Hamilton will now head to the next round in Monaco just six points shy of the man he is bidding to join on four world titles following a dramatic race in which the championship protagonists diced on track for the first time this season.
Indeed it came within inches of ending in tears after Hamilton was forced off the circuit when he attempted to pass Vettel for the lead.
But after labelling the German’s tactics “dangerous”, Hamilton got his own back just a matter of laps later when he charged past Vettel on the 220mph drag down to the opening turn.
The victory, Hamilton’s second of the season and the 55th of his career, was just what the doctor ordered after his drubbing in Russia a fortnight ago.
“It was just the rawest fight that I can remember having for some real time,” said Hamilton. “This is what the sport needs to have at every single race, and this is why I race, and what got me into racing in the beginning.
“To have a close battle like that with a four-time champion is awesome. I have been racing for 24, 25 years and it feels like the first win.”
For much of the fifth round of the championship here in Barcelona it looked as though it was going to be Vettel who would extend his title lead to 20 points after executing the perfect start to leapfrog his championship rival.
But an inspired strategic call from Hamilton’s Mercedes team won him the race. The virtual safety car was deployed when Stoffel Vandoorne crashed into Felipe Massa and Mercedes caught Ferrari on the hop by pitting Hamilton.
Vettel stopped one lap later, but emerged alongside Hamilton to lead to a fascinating on-track duel between the two leading talents of their generation.
“He came out of the pits and I was a bit surprised that it was so close,” said Vettel. “I tried to brake as late as possible. I don’t know if we touched but I managed to stay ahead.
“I was doing everything I could to stay in front, but as soon as I was alone he just flew past me down the straight, which was a shame.
“Well done to him. He won it fair and square so I can’t take it away from him. I am not happy because the race was there to win.”
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo joined Hamilton and Vettel on the podium after the Australian took advantage of a first-lap collision involving Valtteri Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen, and Max Verstappen.
Raikkonen and Verstappen were unable to continue, and while Bottas solidered on — indeed he played a crucial role in assisting Hamilton’s victory by holding Vettel up in the opening phase of the race — he later retired when his Mercedes engine expired.
The Force India duo of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon finished in fourth and fifth. Fernando Alonso crossed the line in 12th — his first finish of the season — but there was misery for Britain’s Jolyon Palmer, who limped home last of all the classified runners.