MONTE CARLO, Monaco -- Lewis Hamilton held off a charging Max Verstappen in the final laps of the Monaco Grand Prix to claim an emotional and hard-earned victory on the streets of Monte Carlo.
Hamilton, wearing a helmet painted in the colours of Mercedes' chairman Niki Lauda who died on Tuesday, soaked up 67 laps of pressure from Verstappen after his team put him on a questionable strategy at his one and only pit stop. With Verstappen looming in his mirrors and his front left tyre falling apart, Hamilton overcame the odds with a sensational drive that Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said was "worthy of Niki" after the chequered flag.
Verstappen, who was in second place but had a five-second penalty hanging over him for an incident in the pit lane earlier in the race, became increasingly desperate in the final ten laps. With two laps remaining he attempted a move at the Nouvelle Chicane, managing to get his nose alongside but not coming close enough to make the move stick. His front wing clipped Hamilton's left rear tyre, but both escaped without major damage and Hamilton retained the lead until the end of the race.
Verstappen finished second on the road but was demoted to fourth behind Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas once a time penalty for a collision in the pit lane earlier in the race was applied.
The tense finish was set up by a Safety Car on lap 11 when Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, who started 15th on the grid, attempted to pass Nico Hulkenberg at La Rascasse and suffered a puncture on his right rear tyre. As the tyre tore itself apart, the flailing rubber ripped a chunk out of the floor of the Ferrari and scattered debris across the track. Race Control took no chances and deployed a Safety Car to allow Monaco's marshals to sweep the track clear.
At that point of the race the top four were still in their starting order, with Hamilton leading teammate Bottas, Verstappen and Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel. Under the Safety Car the cars are required to reduce their speed by 60 percent, meaning a pit stop costs a driver just 12 seconds to his competitors rather than the usual 20 under racing conditions. The opportunity to save those eight seconds saw all of the top four drivers pit, but in the haste of releasing Verstappen from his pit box, the Red Bull squeezed Bottas into the wall of the pit lane. Bottas suffered a puncture in the collision and the stewards took a dim view of the way Verstappen muscled his way alongside the Mercedes, giving the Red Bull driver the five-second penalty that would hang over him until the end of the race.
For reasons that weren't obvious on lap 11 when the cars came into the pits -- and were still a mystery at the time of writing -- Mercedes opted to stick both its drivers on medium tyres while Verstappen and Vettel went out on hards. With 67 laps remaining, logic dictated that the harder tyre would be the safer option, but Mercedes -- perhaps worried about the slower warm-up phase on the harder rubber -- bucked the trend. When Bottas received a puncture after his contact with Verstappen however, Mercedes had to switch him to the hard as it was the only fresh set of tyres he had left, leaving Hamilton as the only driver in the top four on the more fragile mediums.
Over the next 20 laps or so, Hamilton's front left tyre started opening up and the implications of the botched strategy became clear. Verstappen, who was now aware of his penalty, was clearly faster and needed to get past Hamilton in order to pull a gap of more than five seconds over the other front runners. Verstappen is one of the bravest and boldest overtakers on the grid and, with the pressure on and the occasional rain drop falling from the sky, the scene was set for a tense and thrilling showdown.
A series of increasingly pessimistic radio messages came from the cockpit of car 44, with Hamilton telling his engineer "we are going to lose this race" when the lap count was still in the 50s. But it wasn't until the final ten laps that Verstappen really started to push, showing his nose on the outside of the Loews hairpin on one lap and then the inside on the next. On lap 71 he made a mistake, cutting the second part of the Swimming Pool chicane, but he wasn't put off and by the Loews hairpin on lap 72 was right back on the tail of the Mercedes.
Hamilton, however, could make his car wide enough at Loews not to be passed and knew he was most vulnerable at the Nouvelle Chicane where the majority of Monaco's passing moves happen. As a result, the five-time world champion focused on the exit of Portier, giving a good run through the tunnel and making sure he was clear of Verstappen at the braking point for the chicane. The strategy worked for the most part, but on lap 76 Verstappen got his best exit of the race from Portier and saw his opportunity.
As the cars reached the downhill braking zone for the Nouvelle Chicane, Verstappen had himself positioned to the inside of Hamilton but locked his brakes and couldn't slow down enough to stop himself nudging the Mercedes as Hamilton turned in and claimed the apex. The contact could have resulted in tears as Verstappen's front wing endplate folded against the left rear tyre of Hamilton, but all the important components of both cars held together and they emerged from the corner in the same order.
After that Verstappen wasn't able to get close again and the pair crossed the line split by 0.5s in Hamilton's favour. The lap-76 incident was reviewed by the stewards after the race, but they decided to take no further action. With Verstappen's penalty applied he dropped to fourth, moving Vettel up to second and Bottas to third.
"There was every opportunity to crack today," Hamilton said after the race. "I was determined not to crack. If you crack up here [tapping his head] you're done. I nearly crashed 30 times! So grateful it's over"
Outside the top four, Pierre Gasly took fifth place and the point for fastest lap after making a late pit stop to take on soft tyres. Carlos Sainz was sixth for McLaren ahead of Daniil Kvyat, Alex Albon, Daniel Ricciardo and Romain Grosjean.
Hamilton's victory means he now leads Bottas by 17 points with six rounds completed.