Indeed, the move smelt of desperation, and it marked Vettel's second mistake of the weekend, after he ran off track in qualifying, and his seventh of an error-prone campaign.
Verstappen went on to finish third regardless, and when told by team principal Christian Horner after the race that he would not be "too popular with Ferrari and the Italians", he jovially replied: "That's not my problem, they were too aggressive". Perhaps the stewards viewed the puncture as punishment enough, but in an incident-packed Japanese Grand Prix, this had the biggest potential for a serious accident.
Verstappen's run-in with Vettel was set up by a previous incident with the German's Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen.
Vettel, whose dreams of pipping Hamilton to five world titles now look all but over, had barely left the garage on the harder compound tyres when he informed Ferrari of the error over team radio.
Hamilton's lead over Vettel is now 67 points with four races remaining, worth 100 points.
"It's a great one-two for Mercedes and a true showing of the strength in depth we have", said the Briton after his fifth Japan victory and ninth of the season. "James [Vowles, chief strategist] is flying the aeroplane during the race, he's making the strategy calls - I'm distracting him a little bit - but he takes ownership when he's right and takes ownership when he's wrong".
Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth for Red Bull after starting way back in 15th with Kimi Raikkonen fifth after Ferrari opted not to switch his position with Vettel for the sake of two extra points.
Raikkonen drifted further away from the Red Bulls in fifth, while Vettel gradually made his way back to sixth - but by the time he was clear of the rest of the field, he was a minute behind Hamilton and 40 seconds behind Raikkonen.
After the restart, Vettel was behind Verstappen and he saw an opportunity to pass into Spoon when the Red Bull slowed approaching the corner as the engine went into energy harvesting mode.
"I hope you guys are not getting bored of this, because I'm definitely not", added Hamilton, who has now won six of the last seven races and four in a row.
"If I don't go for that gap and that gap was there, I might as well go home".
The Dutchman also pointed to his move on Vettel in China earlier this year, which caused both cars to spin and led to a 10-second penalty for Verstappen.
"I think yesterday was the decisive moment", he acknowledged.
"I was able to look after my tyres the way I wanted and just managed the pace".
"Austin is usually a good track for us, so I can't wait to unleash this beast there".