The Briton stormed to pole on Saturday by 0.7seconds and comfortably led for the opening stages of the race in Melbourne the following day.
But with Ferrari benefitting from Valtteri Bottas’ absence at the front of the grid due to a qualifying crash and gearbox penalty, their tactics forced Hamilton to pit on lap 19 to avoid being undercut after Kimi Raikkonen had swapped for fresher tyres.
Ferrari then left Hamilton’s title rival Vettel out in the hope that a Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car would come. And Romain Grosjean’s misfortune gave them just that.
With a pit stop taking less time under the VSC, the German emerged out in front of Hamilton with it soon becoming evident that a Mercedes error had allowed Ferrari to steal the lead.
An apparent computer miscalculation led the Silver Arrows to believe that Hamilton had a sufficient advantage out in front in the case of a VSC – which requires slower speeds on track but not in the pits – being called.
And while the 33-year-old chased Vettel for the rest of the race, a late lock-up denied Hamilton the chance to hunt down his title rival in the last laps at Albert Park.
Rueing his misfortune, the reigning world champion declared that there are positives to take from the first race of 2018.
“It’s such a team effort, but when you’re relying on so much computers, so much data, so much technology to come up with the strategy or whatever it may be, I wish it was down more to personnel,” he said.
“I don’t know if that is the right saying, but I wish it was more in my hands because, as I said, I feel I was driving as good as ever.
“I’m really, really happy with how I was driving.
“Anyway, I will take that onto the next race, apply it exactly the same as I have this weekend and try to grow within myself.”
Hamilton’s team-mate Bottas finished in eighth after starting from 15th leaving Mercedes 18 points behind Ferrari in the Constructors’ standings ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix later this month.