LEWIS Hamilton moved to within six points of Sebastian Vettel at the top of the Formula One drivers’ championship standings when he heat his rival in a titanic tussle at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Pole-sitter Hamilton lost the lead to Vettel at the start only to regain it from the Ferrari driver in the final stages of a compelling race to seal his second victory of the year.

Hamilton punched the air in delight as he crossed the line first in his Mercedes. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo completed the podium places after Valtteri Bottas retired with an engine problem. “That is how racing should be,” Hamilton said after recording the 55th victory of his career. “That is as close as it could be. Sebastian was incredibly close and incredibly fast, but the team did a great job with the strategy.”

Hamilton had vowed to take inspiration from Bottas’s lightning quick start in Russia a fortnight ago, but it was Vettel who was fastest out of the blocks at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Despite starting on the dirtier side of the track, the German drew alongside Hamilton on the long run down to turn one before hugging the inside line to take the lead. Hamilton was second but there was chaos behind as Bottas bumped into Kimi Raikkonen, who, in turn, ran into Max Verstappen.

While Bottas survived the incident, Raikkonen’s front-left suspension was in tatters, and although Verstappen limped back to the pits his race was over, too.

Fernando Alonso, starting in seventh after a miraculous performance in qualifying, dropped four places on the opening lap after he was edged off the track by his former Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa at turn two. Up front, Vettel was 2.2 seconds clear of Hamilton at the end of the an incident-fuelled opening lap, and that is how it remained as the two championship protagonists traded times.

Ferrari were the first to blink as Vettel came in for his first stop at the end of lap 14. Vettel took on the soft tyre, the quickest, but less durable of the three compounds available.

It was expected that Hamilton would pit on the following lap, but he was told to stay out as Mercedes switched up their strategy.

The Briton eventually stopped at the end of lap 21, taking on the more durable medium rubber, and exited the pit lane nearly eight seconds adrift of Vettel, whose more immediate concern was team-mate Bottas, who had yet to stop, holding him up. But on lap 25 Vettel made his move. He threw Bottas a dummy before taking to the grass on the 200mph run down to turn one and edging his way past to lead once more.

Stoffel Vandoorne then crashed into Felipe Massa at turn one. The McLaren driver’s race was instantly over and, with his car discarded in the gravel, the virtual safety car was deployed. Mercedes sensed an opportunity and hauled Hamilton into the pit lane for his second and final stop.

On went the soft tyre and Hamilton was released. Ferrari reacted by putting the slower medium compound on Vettel’s car, and as the German raced away from the pit lane he emerged wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton.

The British driver attempted to pass his rival around the outside, but Vettel held firm and Hamilton ran off the track.

“That was dangerous,” a breathless Hamilton said over the team radio. “I was more than half alongside him, and he pushed me wide.”

The stewards noted the incident, but took no action.

Hamilton was not about to give up, however, and, after gaining once more on the Ferrari, he seized his opportunity on the 44th lap. With the combination of a tow and DRS he sailed around the outside of Vettel at turn one to reclaim the lead he had lost at the start. “I had no chance,” said Vettel over the radio. “He was like a train.”

Would Hamilton be able to make his tyres last? The answer was yes as he crossed the line 3.4 seconds clear of Vettel.

Reflecting on the wheel-to-wheel battle, Hamilton added: “In the heat of the moment it is difficult to know from the outside view what it is like. I felt like I ran out of road. It was definitely close but, as I said that is how racing should be. I loved it. I would not change it for the world.”

Vettel said: “I had a really good start and I managed to stay ahead, then settled into a nice rhythm and everything was fine.

“He came out of the pits and I was a bit surprised that it was so close. 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 drove a good race and we did everything we could.”