The Monegasque, in only his second year in Formula One and his first racing for the famous Scuderia, started the race from pole but for 53 nail-biting laps was forced to defend against two faster Mercedes cars to convert it into his second career victory to send the packed Italian grandstands into raptures.
Leclerc beat Lewis Hamilton to the first turn while Hamilton, starting from second, worked to keep teammate Valtteri Bottas at bay from third.
Leclerc’s teammate, Sebastian Vettel, had qualified fourth and was expected to play an important supporting role to the polesitter to attract the fire from one of the Mercedes cars, but from lights-out the German’s race began unravelling.
A poor start dropped him behind Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, forcing him from touch with the top three, and though powered his way back past at the end of the first lap with his more powerful engine, his problems were only beginning.
On lap six Vettel made an unforced error, spinning at the chicane as he attempted to catch up to the leaders. To make matters far worse, he hit Lance Stroll as he unsafely rejoined the track, apparently unaware the Racing Point car was speeding past.
The stewards needed little time to find the German guilty of a serious driving offence, penalising him a 10-second stop-go penalty that dropped him to last.
Stroll’s race was also undone in the collision, which sent his Racing Point machine spinning onto the exit of the track. He too would rejoin unsafely, albeit less egregiously, for which the stewards handed him a drive-through penalty.
With Vettel well and truly out of the picture, Mercedes focused on using its two-to-one advantage on leader Leclerc. On the track Hamilton and Bottas kept the red car on a short leash, never more than 1.5 seconds ahead, while on the pit wall team strategists attempted to outfox their Ferrari counterparts.
Mercedes mechanics first tried to bluff Ferrari, sending its mechanics into the pit lane on lap 16 to try to trick Leclerc into an early stop, but when it didn’t work the team brought Hamilton in from second place for a new set of medium tyres on lap 19.
The move kicked Ferrari into action, and Leclerc came in for his own tyre change on the following lap — but he Monegasque opted for the more durable hard tyres in defence to ensure he could absorb the Briton’s pressure through to the end of the race.
And the pressure began from the moment he left pit lane. Hamilton used his warmed-up rubber to good effect, harrying the Ferrari from the off. By lap 23 they were coming to blows, making side-by-side contact into the Roggia chicane. Hamilton had attempted to line up a pass from the outside, but Leclerc controversially bumped him wide onto the grass and into the run-off area, for which he was officially warned by race control.
Circumstances came to test Leclerc too. Two virtual safety car periods forced him to slow his pace, losing precious temperature from the hard-to-warm hard tyres and opening the door for Hamilton to renew his challenge. But each time he held firm to test the Briton’s resolve.
By lap 42 Hamilton’s challenge was finally blunted, his more delicate tyres spent, and a lock-up at the first chicane allowed teammate Bottas through to take over the baton and continue the charge.
The Finn had changed tyres seven laps later than Leclerc, and with 10 laps remaining he was filling the Ferrari’s mirrors. On lap 46 he closed to within one second and began to assault the leader with DRS.
But try as Bottas might, he couldn’t overcome Leclerc’s straight-line speed advantage, and when on lap 51 Bottas locked up into the first chicane and ran deep, his challenge was finished.
Leclerc needed only to keep it clean for the final two laps to record a famous Ferrari win just one week after his debut victory.
“What a race!” he exclaimed out of the car. “I’ve never been so tired … it was a very difficult race, obviously it demanded the most from me.
“I’ve never dreamed of something like this before. It’s above everything I’ve imagined in my whole career to get such a podium.”
The victory elevated Leclerc to fourth in the championship standings 13 points ahead of Vettel and 102 points behind championship leader Hamilton.
Bottas finished a content second, the Finn satisfied there was nothing more he or the team could do to make an impact on the imperious Leclerc.
“I think we had a good strategy,” he said. “I’m gutted there was no way past.
“[Ferrari] are so quick on the straights as well. I tried. I think it was the best we could do today.”
Hamilton completed the podium after a late second pit stop for soft tyres allowed him to win the consolation point for fastest lap, ameliorating the minor damage to his healthy championship lead.
“Congratulations to Ferrari and to Charles, he did a great job,” he said. “I did the best I could.
“Following so closely for such a long time, the tyres just went off a cliff.
“Today wasn’t a perfect race. This weekend I think some improvements can be made to the setup and to myself.”
Renault teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg finished fourth and fifth respectively to record the French team’s best finish since it returned to the sport in 2016.
Thai driver Alex Albon finished just over a second behind Hulkenberg in sixth after rebuilding from a five-second time penalty for passing off the track early in the race.
Racing Point’s Sergio Perez executed a strong recovery drive from 18th on the grid with a power unit penalty. The Mexican started on the medium tyre and stopped late for a fresh set of softs, capitalising from the retirements of teammate Stroll and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz with a loose wheel along the way.
Max Verstappen undertook a similarly impressive recovery to finish eighth. Not only did the Dutchman start 19th, but a crash on the first lap as the traffic bunched up into the first turn forced him to make an immediate pit stop, dropping him to more than 40 seconds off the lead from the second lap. He was typically aggressive from there to scythe through the field and into the points.
Antonio Giovinazzi scored points for just the second time this season by finishing ninth ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris in 10th.