The 100-kilometre sprint set the grid for today’s (Apr 24) grand prix and rewards the top eight with minor championship points, with eight for the winner down to one for eight place.
Verstappen started the sprint from pole but was beaten off the line by Leclerc, who led easily into the first chicane and controlled most of the 21 laps.
But with five laps to go the Ferrari started to struggle with graining on its front-left tyre, and suddenly Verstappen had close from almost two seconds adrift to around just half a second off the lead.
The Red Bull Racing car had a straight-line speed advantage, and coupled with a powerful DRS zone down the front straight it made easy pickings of the leading red car, scything into the lead with two laps to go and taking the flag with a three-second margin.
“It took a while to try to put the pressure on, but I think we were a bit better at our tyres at the end of the race so I could get into the DRS,” he said. “I’m of course happy about today, but I know tomorrow, with other tyre compounds coming into play, it might be a bit different. But we had a good day.”
Leclerc was concerned that his car’s tyre usage wasn’t a match for Verstappen’s and was cautious about predicting how Ferrari would handle a full grand prix distance.
“We struggled with the tyres at the end, so we need to analyse that for tomorrow,” he said. “We need to make sure that we are ready.”
Sergio Perez completed the sprint podium, up from seventh on the grid, thanks to a great start that kept him within reach of the frontrunners and a series of DRS overtakes to pick up the final three places.
So good was his pace - and so second-hand were Leclerc’s tyres by the end of the race - that he finished less than two seconds behind the Monegasque, giving him hope for a better race again today.
“I think we’re in a good position for the fight tomorrow,” he said. “It will be ideal to get a one-two. That will be great for us but probably not the tifosi, but we will try.”
Carlos Sainz had a similarly strong recovery from his qualifying crash that left him 10th on the grid, picking up a couple of places at the start, battling his way past Fernando Alonso and then DRSing his way up the field to fourth, from where he’ll be able to play a strategic role in Ferrari’s battle for victory.
McLaren’s Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo were fifth and sixth, impressive enough after they completed virtually no meaningful running in dry practice earlier on Saturday owing to brake and engine problems respectively.
Valtteri Bottas was quick at the finish to come home seventh for alfa Romeo ahead of Haas driver Kevin Magnussen, who took home the final point of the sprint in eighth, having sunk down from fourth on the grid thanks to his choice of the medium tyre rather than the grippier soft.
Fernando Alonso and Mick Schumacher completed the top 10 ahead of Mercedes’s George Russell in 11th.
Yuki Tsunoda and Sebastian Vettel followed ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who will start the grand prix from 14th.
Lance Stroll was 15th ahead of Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, the last-named Frenchman recovering from a first-lap crash with Zhou Guanyu that put the at-fault Chinese driver out of the race.
That left Williams teammates Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi as the last finishers in 19th and 19th.