The Ferrari driver led throughout the returning Melbourne event, which was disrupted by two safety cars – after which Leclerc dropped Verstappen each time, despite coming under heavy pressure from the Dutchman at the second restart.
At the start, Verstappen looked to get a fractionally better start than Leclerc, but the polesitter was able to sweep across his front row rival and defend the inside line on the run to Turn 1, where behind Hamilton jumped Perez, who had been looking to follow Verstappen's line to the outside.
Leclerc pulled a 0.6-second lead by the end of lap one of 58, with the top two exchanging fastest sectors over the next lap before the race was neutralised by the safety car's appearance.
Carlos Sainz had started on the hard tyres but got a very poor launch off the line in ninth and tumbled down the pack, with the Spaniard starting to fight back on lap two when he lost the rear of his Ferrari after overtaking Mick Schumacher's Haas into the fast left kink of Turn 9.
Sainz's correction took him across the grass on the inside but he spun on the slippery surface, shooting sideways back across the track at the exit of Turn 10 – just in front of Alfa Romeo's Zhou Guanyu – and ending up in the gravel on the far side where he became beached.
The virtual safety car was briefly activated before the full safety car was called for, which stayed out until the restart at the start of lap seven where Leclerc was easily able to maintain his advantage over Verstappen despite his car porpoising badly on full tanks at the end of each straight.
The top two eased clear of Hamilton and Perez – the only drivers able to stay in the 1m23s bracket, with Leclerc gaining enough fractions in each sector of the two laps that followed the race resuming to be out of Verstappen's DRS threat by the time the system was activated.
He continued to grow his lead with a series of fastest laps, metronomic in the 1m23.3s and that reached nearly two seconds by the end of lap 11.
But that ballooned to 3.0s at the end of the next tour as Verstappen, who started to push on in response to Leclerc's rapid pace, locked up at the penultimate corner and shipped a second, then complained his medium starting tyres were heavily grained.
Verstappen's tyre trouble meant he slipped back to the mid 1m24s and with Leclerc able to keep his speed relentlessly high, the Ferrari soon had a lead above six seconds.
This reached 8.3s by the time Red Bull called Verstappen in to go to the hards at the end of lap 18, which left Leclerc leading by miles ahead of Perez, who had repassed Hamilton shortly after the safety car came in.
Ferrari left Leclerc out until the end of lap 22 to swap his mediums for hards – the same lap Mercedes called Hamilton and got him out ahead of Perez.
But the tricky warm-up on the C4 rubber meant the Red Bull could close in on the sweeping run to Turn 9 and shoot ahead just before the quick left and just before the race was neutralised by the safety car's appearance for a second time.
This was because Sebastian Vettel's terrible F1 return ended in the barriers ahead of the fast, tight right of Turn 5 – the Aston Martin driver having lost the rear of his AMR22 hitting the exit kerb of the previous left and spearing into the wall on the track's inside.
With Vettel needing to be recovered from the short straight between Turns 5 and 6, and plenty of debris needing to be cleared from ahead of the former, the safety car stayed out until the start of lap 27, with Leclerc's previous advantage – down to 6.9s thanks to Verstappen's strong pace on the hards after his stop – totally erased.
At the second restart, Leclerc's run onto the main straight was compromised by going too wide and so Verstappen was able to close in and get alongside on the run to Turn 1.
But the Ferrari was able to stay in front with a solid defence on the inside line, which he repeated on the following straight and so was able to maintain the lead despite the pressure.
Leclerc then set about re-establishing his lead – again moving clear of Verstappen seemingly with ease to reach a gap of 3.4s by the end of lap 31, the top duo reaching the 1m22s having spent the early laps after the safety car in the 1m23s and 1m24s respectively as they worked to maintain critical tyre life.
Just like in the first stint, Leclerc set a string of fastest laps as he stroked clear of Verstappen, his lead back above five seconds by the end of lap 35.
It looked as if that gap would continue to grow – especially when Leclerc responded to a lap 37 Verstappen fastest time with an even quicker one on the following tour – when Verstappen suddenly pulled over a retired on the inside of Turn 2 on lap 39.
Smoke coming from the RB18's airbox suggested an engine issue was the cause, with the car's recovery covered by a VSC and so Leclerc's lead – now back over Perez – was maintained.
He cruised home, still with very strong pace in the 1m21s for most of the rest of the event, to win by 20.5s – taking the fastest lap to boot with a blistering 1m20.260s on the final tour, where he also had to negotiate traffic.
Perez was clear in second, with Russell third after he was able to stop during the Vettel safety car and get out just ahead of Fernando Alonso – yet to stop after starting on the hard tyres – Perez and Hamilton.
After Alonso went backwards on his old rubber, Perez hunted down Russell and pressured him for several laps before getting by with DRS on the outside line to Turn 11 – the Briton not fighting hard, possibly as a result of a Mercedes warning that "tyre management was more important that position".
The looked like it might cost Russell a first Mercedes podium, but Verstappen's retirement boosted him back and he came home ahead of an unhappy Hamilton, who noted that his run of bad luck with safety car timing continued here.
The McLaren drivers were secure in fifth and sixth, Lando Norris leading Daniel Ricciardo home, with Esteban Ocon seventh for Alpine.
Valtteri Bottas got ahead of Pierre Gasly late on when the AlphaTauri locked up and slid off at Turn 13, the pair having been part of a thrilling multi-car scrap with Lance Stroll and Alonso once the Spaniard had stopped in the closing stages.
Alex Albon scored a first point for Williams after doing a 57-lap stint on the hards, running ahead of Ocon for a long time after the second safety car and gaining as the battle behind raged, which meant he could stop extremely late and not slide out of the top 10.
Zhou ended up 11th, while Stroll finished 12th – penalised 5s for his aggressive weaving in defence against Bottas – the Aston having gained by pitting twice under the first safety car and completing a net two-stopper from there to get amongst the cars that had started ahead before falling back.
Alonso ended up as the last finisher after his contra-strategy backfired when he appeared to encounter severe degradation late-on and slid down the order to end up 17th.
|Carlos Sainz Jr.
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