By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton lost a battle but regained a rival after Sebastian Vettel won Sunday's Australian season-opener for Ferrari.
The outcome raised hopes of a genuine title tussle between the two dominant Formula One drivers of the past decade, even if overtaking opportunities were thin on the ground.
The first Ferrari victory since 2015 made Vettel, a four-times world champion with Red Bull, the only non-Mercedes driver to have led the standings since the V6 turbo hybrid power units were introduced in 2014.
Over the past three years, triple world champion Hamilton has had only his team mate, the now-retired 2016 title winner Nico Rosberg, and reliability to worry about with Mercedes winning 51 of 59 races up to Melbourne.
If Hamilton, winner of 10 races last year, was disappointed not to make a winning start to the campaign, the Briton also sounded enthused by the new challenge.
"You are seeing the best against the best," he told reporters.
"I am really grateful to have that fight with him (Vettel)," continued the 32-year-old, who won his first title with McLaren in 2008. "Finally we can have an actual race. It's going to be close... it's great to see Ferrari there."
Between them, Hamilton and Vettel have won seven of the last nine championships. Only Britain's Jenson Button, in 2009, and Germany's Rosberg last season interrupted their success.
But they have yet to race each other as main contenders for the crown, Red Bull and Ferrari waning as Mercedes entered an era of engine domination just as McLaren had faded away previously.
"It's been a privilege to be racing in an era with him and now finally at a period of time when we can actually have a real race," said Hamilton, who finished second after starting on pole with Vettel alongside.
"I wish we could race a lot closer in the cars that we have today, but still I think the fact that we are similar pace-wise, it's going to be a very, very hard slog this season.
"Racing the best is what Formula One is all about and ultimately makes you work that much harder, having to raise the bar and I'm looking forward to that."
Vettel, who joined Ferrari in 2015 after four successive titles with Red Bull, has 43 career wins to Hamilton's 53 but every hope of closing the gap.
"Right now it looks like we have equal machinery," Vettel said.
"I hope it stays that way and then we will see how it turns out, but it's obviously a lot of fun to race for victories and a lot of fun to race against the best."
(Editing by John O'Brien)