The poor weather which wreaked havoc with Friday's practice schedule, and forced the sport's new owners to consider moving the race forward by 24 hours, returned overnight.
The pace of both teams in China underlines the prediction that this year's championships will be contested by the two teams, something which Hamilton is hoping to be a "satisfying" battle. The Canadian beached his Williams in the gravel, bringing out the virtual safety vehicle.
The Mercedes driver dominated the race in Asia from start to finish in wet conditions, with Ferrari's Vettel coming home second, in a duel that is tipped to define the 2017 season.
The wet weather conditions would have certainly made the race more interesting between the two but the German driver dropped a few places after deciding to go to the pits just before the safety auto was deployed to clear Antonio Giovinazzi's crashed Sauber vehicle.
Asked if he had an idea at which tracks Mercedes might hold the edge, and which tracks might suit Ferrari, Hamilton said: "It's a little bit hard". Such a decision left the 37-year-old, who also complained of power issues early on, behind the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.
Behind him, Vettel was on the move, too.
Vettel, however, found himself stuck behind Ricciardo and the slower Raikkonen, even as Hamilton increased the gap at the front. Vettel's pass of Verstappen on lap 28 was one of the most breathtaking of the day as the Ferrari driver surged past when Verstappen locked up momentarily.More news: What the Samsung S8 means for the iPhone 8
By now though Hamilton was almost 12 seconds up the road.
Pole-sitter Hamilton managed to make the best getaway from the grid, retaining his lead ahead of Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.
In addition to Stroll and Giovinazzi, McLaren Honda's Stoffel Vandoorne also failed to finish, retiring on lap 18 with a technical problem, while Daniil Kvyat had to park his Toro Rosso a lap later.
Briton's Jolyon Palmer started last after being penalised for ignoring yellow flags in qualifying and he crossed the line 13th of the 15 classified finishers. I didn't really understand what was going on behind because we had the Red Bulls and the Ferraris weren't getting past. "So for us I think it's great news that we had another race where we were really close and were able to put some pressure on".
"We were a good match".
After an exciting start, though, the second half of the race was short of drama as the top drivers maintained their positions to the end.
"I was controlling it at that time, I was quite chilled at the front because I wasn't being pressured from the Red Bulls". Then at the longer faster circuits like Suzuka I think we're going to be in a real strong position. "I was happy to take the risk pitting under the VSC".