What had started as a thrilling race with a first lap collision, spins from Verstappen and Carlos Sainz and Leclerc’s crash, eventually turned into a procession to the checkered flag for Verstappen’s fourth victory in five races.
He now leads the championship by six points while Red Bull also overhauled Ferrari in the constructors’ standings with Sergio Perez returning to second.
The race also marked a revival for Mercedes with George Russell taking another podium and Lewis Hamilton comfortably completing the drive of the day to move from the back of the grid after a first lap crash to fifth at the finish.
It could have been a place higher but he was warned by radio not to defend too hard against Carlos Sainz, whom he had passed a few laps earlier, or risk a DNF for a leak problem.
Before the race, Hamilton had hoped to be able to fight against Ferrari. Although he conceded fourth place much to the delight of the crowded stands at the Circuit de Catalunya on the final lap, he will still be buoyed by what might be possible in Monaco a week from now.
Leclerc will have a chance to make amends in his home run after dominating the weekend in Spain. He had dominated all three practice sessions as well as qualifying, but the big question mark for his team was tire degradation with track temperatures approaching 50°C.
It turned out that Ferrari never figured out how the Pirelli tires would react to hot conditions as Leclerc complained of loss of power, letting out a dejected cry of “No!” What happened?” on the race radio.
There had been no shortage of drama earlier in a race that wasn’t usually the most scintillating on the calendar. The departure highlighted the contrasting fortunes of the two Mercedes drivers this season. Russell got off to a great start to move up to third on the inside of the first corner.
On the other hand, Hamilton, the only driver on the grid to start on medium tires rather than soft ones, came close to overtaking Sainz’s Ferrari. But this duel compromised his position and he hit the wheels with Kevin Magnussen at turn four.
The former Hamilton team-mate skidded in the gravel trap while the Briton had to limp back to the pits with a puncture.
The fourth corner proved crucial early in the race. First, Sainz lost his fullback to break out of the top 10 on lap seven. And two laps later Verstappen did the exact same thing at the same corner which allowed Russell and Perez to pass.
Perez conceded track position to his teammate within a few laps, but Russell was less accommodating with the Dutchman within a second of him for countless laps. His cause was not helped by an issue with the DRS, which had been an issue earlier in the weekend.
He repeatedly lambasted race engineer Ginapiere Lambiase for his inability to activate it. He was finally able to use DRS and in doing so looked like he passed on lap 24. But Russell refused to back down and held his line to stay ahead.
Verstappen eventually came to a stop and Perez, on cooler tires, passed Russell in the lead on lap 31. Amid a flurry of pit stops on the grid, Verstappen finally took the lead from Perez on lap 49 at the request of the team. Perez was simply told Verstappen had a different strategy, his response ‘it’s very unfair’.
A race in which teams had to employ only two pit stops ended, with most opting for three. But amidst all the back and forth in the pit lane, the top three remained the only constants for the final laps with Verstappen prevailing over Perez and Russell.