|Depite a furious drive Hamilton could only fight his way to sixth place and now faces a steward's investigation [GETTY]
Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel kept his nerve to claim his first victory at the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday.
With the safety car kept busy and the race then red-flagged after 71 of the 78 laps due to a pile-up at the Swimming Pool complex, the 23-year-old German led under intense pressure until the late stoppage denied the crowd what had promised to be a knife-edge finish.
Vettel now has a 58-point lead over McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, who scrambled to sixth place despite a drive-through penalty and numerous scrapes that triggered another stewards' investigation, and looks a safe bet to retain the title.
"You beauty, that was a champion's drive," team boss Christian Horner told Vettel over the radio as he took the chequered flag for the sport's most glamorous race.
"I love winning...and there are straightforward races where you have the perfect car and others where arguably other people are quicker and you manage to stay ahead and win the race," said Vettel.
Ferrari's double world champion Fernando Alonso finished second and ahead of McLaren's 2009 winner Jenson Button in third, with the top three separated by just 2.3 seconds at the flag.
It would have been far closer without the stoppage, with Vettel having made just one stop and being reeled in by rivals on fresher tyres as he chased his first win in the principality.
The delay allowed Vettel to get rid of his worn tyres without losing any time, a blow above all to Alonso's hopes, but there was no faulting the winner's poise on this most treacherous of tracks.
"Today we lost the victory with the last red flag," said the Spaniard, who still celebrated Ferrari's best result of the season.
The race had to be halted when Renault's Russian Vitaly Petrov slammed into the wall on lap 71 after Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari and 2008 winner Hamilton had tangled ahead of him as the leading trio came through.
While marshals cleared up the debris, an ambulance and doctors tended to Petrov.
"Vitaly is okay. He's just complaining about leg injuries but the doctors say nothing is broken. They are taking him to hospital for observation but it seems to be just bruising to the legs," team boss Eric Boullier told the BBC.
After a 21-minute delay, the race re-started behind the safety car which had been first deployed when Ferrari's Felipe Massa crashed in the tunnel on lap 34.
Before the stoppage, the top three had been separated by just 0.6 of a second with Alonso vainly seeking a way past the Red Bull as they hurtled through the twisting streets and skimmed the metal barriers with Button right behind the Spaniard.
Brit in the thick of it
The German, who had started on pole, made one stop to Alonso's two and Button's three.
"I suppose at the Monaco Grand Prix you've got to expect safety cars but you always hope this won't happen, particularly when you are doing three stops," said Button, who could only hope the two ahead of him would tangle and give him a lucky break.
There was more drama after the re-start when Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, in sixth place and heading for Williams' first points of the season, tangled with Hamilton and spun into the barriers.
Hamilton was in the thick of the action throughout a sunny afternoon, collecting his drive-through for a collision at the hairpin with Massa, who then hit the tunnel wall as Hamilton swept past.
Vettel's Australian team mate Mark Webber, last year's winner, was fourth with Sauber's Japanese Kamui Kobayashi fifth. However stewards said Kobayashi, whose Mexican team mate Sergio Perez missed the race after crashing in qualifying, and Force India's Adrian Sutil, who finished seventh, were both under investigation for an incident.
While Williams missed out on a handful of points from Maldonado, his Brazilian team mate Rubens Barrichello delivered in ninth place to open the former champions' account for the season.