Defending champion Hamilton was cruising to the chequered flag at Melbourne’s Albert Park after winning the dash to the opening bend and sustaining a comfortable lead over the chasing pack.
But Formula 1’s curtain raiser turned on its head in the space of a dramatic few minutes after Hamilton was leapfrogged by Vettel following the deployment of a virtual safety car (VSC).
Hamilton’s Mercedes team calculated that the Briton, who, unlike Vettel, had already made his single stop for tyres, would re-take the lead in the case of a VSC period.
But when the VSC – in which the drivers have to run at a restricted speed – was deployed after Romain Grosjean stopped in a dangerous position, it prevailed that Mercedes had got their maths wrong.
Vettel was the fortunate recipient of their costly error as he made his stop for new rubber before staying ahead of a stunned Hamilton by just half-a-second.
“It was disbelief from that moment until the end of the race,” said Hamilton. “I did everything I believed I was supposed to do.
“In the race, I had extra tools so I could have been further ahead by the first pit stop and I could have been further ahead after it. There were so many good things we could have done.
“It is a team effort but when you are relying on computers, on data, and on so much technology for the right strategy, I wish it was more in my own hands.
“It is obviously never easy to lose a grand prix, and we still got second, but it feels like a dark cloud.”
Vettel was 11.3 seconds ahead when he stopped for tyres on lap 26, and Mercedes believed they had enough time in their pocket to ensure Hamilton would move back ahead.
“The software or system we have been using for five years just gave us the wrong number,” Hamilton’s Mercedes boss Toto Wolff explained.
“Lewis did nothing wrong. It was down to a software bug or an algorithm that was simply wrong.”
The opening race of the new season at a sun-drenched Melbourne was passing off without incident but a double retirement of both the Haas cars within three laps dramatically changed the course of proceedings.
Kevin Magnussen, running in fourth, fell first after his crew failed to secure his rear-left tyre at a pit stop. Grosjean then retired with a loose wheel following another mistake from the American outfit in the pits.
His stoppage led to the deployment of the VSC and Vettel gaining the lead. The safety car was then issued to aid the recovery of Grosjean’s stricken Haas. Hamilton got to within half-a-second of Vettel once the race resumed but ran off the track in his pursuit before eventually giving up the ghost.
“I was hungry to try and recover, and I was risking it all,” Hamilton added. “I could have lost all the points.
“But eventually I had to make a sensible choice. There is a long, long way to go in this championship and all is not won in one race.”
Kimi Raikkonen held off home favourite Daniel Ricciardo to secure the final podium position, while Fernando Alonso crossed the line an encouraging fifth for McLaren. Max Verstappen, who spun in the early stages, finished an underwhelming sixth.
Vettel’s victory came a day after Hamilton set a blistering track record to capture pole position nearly 0.7 of a second ahead of the rest of the field, a massive margin that raised concerns among some teams that Mercedes had the speed to dominate yet another Formula 1 season. But Vettel said he believed Ferrari would fare better in race conditions and he was right. “I think we didn’t have the true race pace to match them but we weren’t that far off,” he said.
“Even though we were probably lucky with the virtual safety car, we still had enough pace to stay ahead and make it very difficult for him to be close and try and do something.
“We got a bit lucky, but we’ll take it. We’re not yet where we want to be. But I think it gives us a good start, a good wind and fresh motivation for the coming weeks.”