Motorsport: Lewis Hamilton fends off Max Verstappen for season-opening win at Bahrain

Brit Lewis Hamilton has fended off young challenger Max Verstappen in one of the toughest battles of his Formula One career in Bahrain - and said he had loved every minute of it.

Mercedes' seven-time 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 would be no second chance.

The Dutch 23-year-old was 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," says Hamilton, who took his career tally to a record-extending 96.

For years, Formula One has waited 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," says Hamilton. "Every minute of the weekend I've loved.

"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 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."