By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton fended off young challenger Max Verstappen in one of the toughest battles of his Formula One career in Bahrain on Sunday and said he had loved every minute of it.
Mercedes' seven times world champion took the chequered flag in the season-opener with less than a second separating him from his Red Bull rival after soaking up intense pressure over the closing laps in a long final stint on hard tyres.
Verstappen had reeled in Hamilton steadily to seize the lead with four laps to go after going behind on strategy but in doing so ran wide, outside the track limits, and had to hand back the advantage. There was to be no second chance.
The Dutch 23-year-old had been fastest in pre-season testing, topped all three practice sessions, secured pole position and was the hot race favourite.
"I think ultimately if he hadn’t made the mistake he probably would have won the race, but that’s what makes and loses you wins," said Hamilton, who took his career tally to a record-extending 96.
Formula One has for years been waiting for a proper battle between the sport's most successful driver and the man tipped to be his successor and Sunday delivered round one in a record 23-race season.
"I loved every minute of it. Every minute of the weekend I’ve loved," said Hamilton.
"These guys (Red Bull) have done a better job so far and so for us to come away with this result, given that we weren’t the fastest this weekend, is a real result."
Verstappen had led from the start but Mercedes pitted Hamilton early to try and get a jump on the Red Bull, with the lead switching between the two on differing tyre strategies.
"Stopping early, we knew it was going to be difficult but we had to cover Max. They've had amazing performance all weekend so it was going to take something pretty special," said the Briton "Max was all over me right at the end."
"The pressure was immense.
"He’s a fantastic driver and they have the quicker car so to keep him behind, on fresh tyres also, was one of the hardest (challenges) that I’ve had for a while."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ken Ferris)