The Ferrari man was dominant from the very first lap and looked unlikely to be caught by his early-season title rival as he got much more pace and grip out of his car. His victory was all but confirmed when Verstappen’s Red Bull caught fire and forced him to retire from the race.
Leclerc’s team-mate Carlos Sainz had already crashed out and Sergio Perez came home second, meaning the damage was at least limited from Red Bull’s perspective. And George Russell secure his first podium as a Mercedes driver as he came home third in front of his audibly irritated team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
Sainz was the first victim of the race, following up a disastrous opening lap in which he dropped five places to 14th by beaching his Ferrari at the exit of Turn 10 on the second and being told to switch his engine off. The resulting safety car delayed everyone’s pit stops during the race except for Lance Stroll, who pitted twice to burn his medium set for a lap in the hope of going for the rest of the race on hards.
The loss of a Ferrari driver was great news for Red Bull if they could capitalise, but not only were they a long way off the leader Leclerc, but Mercedes behind them looked better for race pace. Verstappen pitted while nine seconds off the lead, and Perez followed two laps later when in danger of being overtaken by Hamilton as he struggled for grip.
The second safety car followed just after Leclerc had been in for his own stop, as the rusty Sebastian Vettel finished his first race of the season by crashing after 23 laps. It worked out brilliantly for George Russell, who was about to pit anyway and ended up getting a cheap stop which left him in third.
Verstappen very nearly took the lead upon the restart, but Leclerc defended well and then used his superior race pace to stretch his advantage well beyond a second before DRS was reactivated. The Red Bull star might have been thinking his one and only chance to put himself in front had come and gone.
As Leclerc stretched out that lead and began setting new fastest laps of the race, that seemed to be that in terms of who was going to be standing at the top of the podium in Melbourne. That notion was confirmed as Verstappen’s Red Bull caught fire.
The final few laps were devoid of too much drama as Leclerc strolled home and Perez limited the damage with an impressive drive to second. Russell will be delighted with his maiden Mercedes podium, though Hamilton moaned over the radio that his team had “put him in a really difficult position”.