Polesitter Verstappen had race-winning pace all afternoon, but a bizarre final 20 laps turned the grand prix on its head and threatened twice to rob the Dutchman of a well-deserved victory.
Having fended off multiple strategic advances from Lewis Hamilton, a lap-54 safety car to recover Valtteri Bottas’s sister Mercedes – the Finn had parked by the side of the track in a plume of smoke with an oil consumption issue – put the two leaders in a difficult strategic position.
Hamilton was told to do the opposite of Verstappen, so when the Dutchman gambled his lead on a fresh set of soft tyres the Briton assumed the lead.
But with 16-lap-old mediums to run to the end of the race, Hamilton’s defence of the lead when the race resumed on lap 59 was always going to be short-lived, and Verstappen swept around his outside of turn one immediately to retake first place.
In an instant Mercedes’s race turned from attack to defence, for while Verstappen streamed off into the distance, both Ferrari drivers and Alex Albon in the second Red Bull Racing were in pursuit on fresher tyres.
Albon was the quickest of the three, launching himself into third around Vettel’s outside at the first turn and making inroads on Hamilton, but the race was soon neutralised again after friendly fire between Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc.
A failed attempt by Vettel to strike back at Albon pushed him back into Leclerc’s clutches, and the Monegasque cut down his teammate’s inside to take third place.
The German struck back with a good exit to launch into the ensuing DRS zone, but as he powered past the sister car he clipped its right-hand side, catastrophically breaking Leclerc’s front-right suspension and giving himself a puncture.
Both cars retired, and the wreckage triggered another safety car.
This time Hamilton took the initiative to stop for new tyres, albeit with the substantial risk of there being only four laps remaining when the caution period began. He fell from second to fourth behind Albon and Gasly.
When the track was clear Hamilton had just two laps to use his fresh rubber to take back a podium finish. He made short work of Gasly, but Albon was a more difficult prospect, and at turn 11 they tangled.
The Briton tried to squeeze down Albon’s outside at the right-hander but ran out of space, knocking the Red Bull Racing car into a spin to the back of the field and dropping himself back to third behind Gasly.
He battled with the Frenchman for the final lap, but damage to his front wing left him hamstrung, and though he dragged the Toro Rosso to the line, Gasly held him at bay by just 0.062 seconds to score his maiden F1 podium.
“For sure I will never forget this,” he said. “It’s such a special moment. It’s so emotional.
“That’s what I love about motorsport – emotions, the fight. I just kept believing until the end, I kept pushing as much as I could and the opportunity came to us.”
There was more bad news to come for Hamilton in store after the chequered flag fell. The stewards opened an investigation into his botched pass on Albon and slapped him with a five-second penalty, dropping him to seventh.
“He did a great job, he was very fair with where he positioned the car,” Hamilton admitted. “I massively apologise to Albon for the move.
“The gap was there but it closed in the end. Completely my fault.”
The penalty promoted Carlos Sainz onto the podium for the first time in the Spaniard’s career, with McLaren earning its first top-three finish since the 2014 Australian Grand Prix.
Unperturbed by the drama behind him was Verstappen, who rebuffed challenge after challenge from Hamilton and deftly executed two safety car restarts to ensure he claimed a well-deserved victory.
Red Bull Racing was a cut above Mercedes in terms of pace, even with Hamilton encouraging his team to be aggressive with strategy in an attempt to trip up the leading Dutchman.
At the Briton’s behest he stopped early on lap 20 in an undercut attempt, momentarily taking the lead with a blistering out-lap, but Verstappen was rapid on the newer rubber after his subsequent stop and took back control by lap 23.
Hamilton rolled the dice a second time on lap 43, slashing his deficit from three seconds to 1.5 when his rival responded one lap later, but he lacked the pace to make the move, leaving the way clear for Verstappen to stamp his authority on the race.
“Lewis was very quick so I had to keep pushing,” Verstappen said. Two times we had a good move with him, so that all the time brought us back into first. From there onwards I could control the race.
“It was a lot of fun out there and of course great to win the race.”
Sainz crossed the line fourth before his promotion with Hamilton’s penalty, completing an impressive drive from the back of the grid. The Spaniard was the only driver to make only one stop for the race, circumventing most of the midfield in the process on his rise towards the top.
It left him vulnerable to attack from Alfa Romeo teammates Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi in the final laps, but he fended off their advances by just half a second over the line.
Daniel Ricciardo completed a similarly stellar recovery, albeit after a clumsy crash with Kevin Magnussen early in the race. The Australian was battling the Dane for 12th when he knocked Magnussen into a spin at turn four, forcing him into an early pit stop that dropped him to last.
But Ricciardo made only one more stop for the race, similar to Sainz, and used the safety car bunching up the field to his advantage.
Lando Norris finished eighth, his race compromised by a stint on the unfavourable hard tyre in the middle of the race, beating Racing Point’s Sergio Perez and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat to the line by less than half a second.