Verstappen had the upper hand for most of yesterday’s (June 19) race but was set up for a final-stint pursuit of Sainz after making a second stop with 27 laps remaining.
Sainz, who had started third and lost time early in the race to second-starting Fernando Alonso, was tasked with eking life out of his tyres for nearly 50 laps without making another top.
But the race was turned on its head by a safety car called on lap 48. AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda had just made a pit stop when he locked up on cold tyres exiting the pit lane, which sent him careering embarrassingly into the barriers.
Sainz used the opportunity to make a cheap stop, ceding the lead to Verstappen but rejoining the race with tyres six laps younger and with 16 laps to make the difference once the race resumed.
The Spaniard had a substantial straight-line speed advantage with the aid of DRS, but Verstappen focused on perfecting his launch out of the hairpin to ensure Sainz couldn’t make up the gap before the end of the straight in what proved to be an unbreakable defence.
He took the chequered flag with a slender 0.9-second advantage to add another 25 points to his growing championship advantage.
“The safety car didn’t help,” he said. “I think overall they were very quick in the race.
“I would’ve preferred attacking instead of defending, but luckily it worked out.”
Sainz missed another chance to score his first career victory but took some solace in the fact his Ferrari was the quicker car, which he used to take the bonus point for fastest lap.
“I was pushing flat out,” he said. “I wasn’t leaving any inches to the walls and the braking, I was pushing with the battery.
“I tried everything to pass Max, but today we didn’t have the pace delta.
“The positive thing is we were quicker throughout the race. We just need a little bit more to overtake here.”
Lewis Hamilton completed the podium in a strong turnaround from a dreadful Friday of practice. Set-up changes meant the car bounced far less aggressively in the race, and he was able to move from fourth to third past Alonso on strategy to take his best finish since the season-opening race in Bahrain.
“It’s quite overwhelming, honestly, to get this third place,” he said. “It’s been such a battle this year with the car.
“They’re a little bit too quick for us at the moment. I was giving it everything. But we’re getting closer.”
George Russell followed home his Mercedes teammate to finish fourth.
Charles Leclerc’s recovery from 19th with engine penalties ended in a somewhat underwhelmed fifth place. A long opening stint on the hard tyre petered out as the Ferrari ran out of grip, and his sole stop dropped him well out of the points late in the race, but the safety car compressed the field and helped him rise through the top 10 to reduce the damage done to his campaign.
The Monegasque is now 49 points behind Verstappen in the championship standings, though Ferrari reduced its deficit to Red Bull Racing to 76 points thanks to Sergio Perez’s retirement with gearbox problems.
Esteban Ocon led home Alpine teammate Fernando Alonso ahead of Alfa Romeo duo Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu, while Lance Stroll collected the final point of his home race from 10th.
Daniel Ricciardo missed out on points in 11th after a series of slow McLaren pit stops, though teammate Lando Norris suffered the brunt of the mistakes, dropping him to 15th. Between then finished Sebastian Vettel, Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly.
Nicholas Latifi’s first home race ended in 16th ahead of only Kevin Magnussen, for whom a damaged front wing from the first lap undermined his fifth-place qualification.