Lewis Hamilton joked that he will have turned grey by the end of the season after narrowly hanging on to take first place in the thrilling F1 curtain-raiser in Bahrain.
The world champion was pushed until the very last second by Red Bull hotshot Max Verstappen, who began on pole and mounted a late, dramatic charge.
But it was Hamilton who lit the touch paper on the mouth-watering championship title race – and later admitted he may find himself behind Red Bull much more often.
Lewis Hamilton joked he will have turned grey by the end of the year after winning in Bahrain
‘Twenty-two more races this season. Holy c**p,’ Hamilton said after steering home his Mercedes on battered tyres. ‘I’ll be grey by the end of it.’
He produced one of the finest defensive drives of his career, if not his best ever, with Verstappen bearing down on him and edging within DRS range several times.
With Hamilton taking the lead in the intriguing, and tactical, game of cat and mouse at the front, Verstappen was handed 16 remaining laps to hunt him down.
Mercedes’ Hamilton produced one of the finest drives of his life to fend off Max Verstappen
But, despite the Red Bull man’s tyre advantage, he narrowly fell short and was forced to settle for second place for the first chequered flag of the campaign.
And as the fireworks lit up the night sky at Sakhir, Hamilton turned his attention to the unpredictable clash to become top dogs between Mercedes and Red Bull.
He added: ‘I loved every minute of it. We knew we were behind in performance. To come away with this result is a real boost.
‘We don’t know how much better Red Bull will be in other places.
‘I am excited and happy the fans are excited. This is something they have wanted for a long time. It is only one race and we don’t know what the future holds.
Verstappen started on pole but was unable to usurp Hamilton during the dramatic final laps
‘With the pace Red Bull have, they could be ahead a lot more, but we are going to work as hard as we can to stay close. I hope for more of these races with Max.’
Verstappen even took the lead with just three laps left after springing on to the attack through Turn Four.
The Red Bull narrowly ran off the circuit while moving ahead of his opponent, however, and was forced to surrender the spot back to Hamilton.
Hamilton has admitted he expects to be chasing Red Bull’s cars much more often this season
Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas took the last podium spot despite another poor Mercedes pitstop at the circuit – with Lando Norris in fourth and Sergio Perez fifth.
Mexican racer Perez, making his Red Bull debut, recovered brilliantly from a pitlane start after being brought to a stop on the formation lap.
Rookie Yuki Tsunoda, meanwhile, caught the eye in his first F1 outing at AlphaTauri and finished ninth to claim two points.
Valtteri Bottas finished third in the other Mercedes despite another bungled pit stop at Sakhir
Sergio Perez fought from a pitlane start to end up fifth and banish a poor qualifying experience
Sebastian Vettel endured an evening to forget in his Aston Martin after finishing 15th and being hit with five penalty points in the space of just under five hours.
The four-time champion was tripped up by a yellow flag in qualifying, forcing him to the back of the grid, and was also guilty of a collision with Esteban Ocon.
Nikita Mazepin crashed just three turns into the first lap in Bahrain, bringing a very premature end to his first drive for struggling Haas.