Leclerc started from pole with Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton separating him from Vettel in third, and though he rocketed off the line to secure an early lead, it was events behind him, far beyond his control, that set in motion a series of events to rob him of victory.
Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg were battling for seventh, but at turn seven they came to blows. The German had snuck down the Spaniard’s inside, but they both made contact when Sainz attempted to take control of the apex, sending them tumbling down the order.
Both returned to the pits, but Hulkenberg was sufficiently unencumbered by damage to build a recovery drive. By lap 18 he was battling with Romain Grosjean for 13th, and when he passed the Haas driver on the following lap, he threatened to move into Ferrari’s pit stop window.
Vettel had been fending off Verstappen to hold third place, but identifying the risk of falling behind Hulkenberg, who would be attempting not to make a second stop, Ferrari brought the German in for fresh tyres, with Verstappen following him into pit lane.
The team successfully avoided the Renault, but the proactiveness had the unintended side effect of undercutting lead driver Leclerc, who made his own stop the following lap but emerged from pit lane behind Vettel.
The Monegasque was furious, but Ferrari’s immediate focus was on Hamilton, who was yet to pit and on his own in the lead of the race — but the Briton’s tyres didn’t have enough life left in them to make an impression on the race, and by lap 25 it was clear he would not only fall behind both Ferrari drivers and Verstappen but was also at risk of being jumped by teammate Valtteri Bottas. The Finn, who had stopped on lap 22, was told to slow his pace, allowing Hamilton to rejoin the race in fifth place after his lap-26 stop.
But still Leclerc was unable to challenge Vettel, for attention then turned to the group of midfield cars ahead, all of which were yet to make their mandatory pit stop.
Vettel made decisive progress, slicing past Lance Stroll and Daniel Ricciardo before ambitiously banging wheels with Pierre Gasly, sending the Toro Rosso driver off the track in a move the stewards deemed hard but fair. When Antonio Giovinazzi followed, Vettel was back in clear air with half the race remaining.
Thrice more his mettle was challenged, with three safety car deployments at the circuit infamous for its 100 per cent safety car record.
The first was for a crash between Romain Grosjean and George Russell, the Frenchman knocking the Briton’s rear wheels at the exit of turn eight to send him into the barrier.
Vettel perfectly judged the restart, and when the second intervention came to clear Sergio Perez’s broken-down Racing Point, Leclerc was determined to throw everything at overhauling his teammate.
“I want everything. Even engine mode,” Leclerc demanded, but his team wasn’t willing to let him challenge.
“We need to manage the [power unit] and bring the car home,” came the reply, tacitly commanding Leclerc not to challenge for the lead.
Vettel led the field away at the restart on lap 41, but on lap 44 for the race was neutralised a third and final time to collect Kimi Raikkonen’s stopped Ferrari, it front-left wheel broken in a clash with Daniil Kvyat.
The race resumed finally on lap 48, and with Leclerc’s challenge subdued, Vettel was clear to take the chequered flag for the first time since last year’s Belgian Grand Prix.
“I’m very happy,” he said. “It was a great race.
“First of all, a big congratulations to the team. The start of the season has been difficult for us, but recent weeks I think we started to come alive.
“I’m really proud of everyone’s work back at home.”
Leclerc was bitterly disappointed to be denied a third win in succession, and he said he would be seeking answers from the team as to why Vettel was allowed to jump ahead of him.
“Obviously it’s always difficult to lose a win like that, but at the end it’s one-two for the team,” he acknowledged. “This was the strategy. The strategy was fixed at the beginning of the race. I stuck to the plan.
Max Verstappen took the flag third after jumping Hamilton in the pit stop window, and the Dutchman was satisfied to beat both Mercedes drivers after his Red Bull Racing team endured an unexpectedly difficult weekend.
“I think the whole race went well,” he said. “Of course in the beginning it was all going really slow, then I started to struggle a bit with the tyres, so we boxed, and actually that was quite a good call because we undercut Lewis.
“In general I’m happy to be on the podium. It’s always difficult to overtake here, so to do it by strategy is very positive.”
Hamilton led Bottas home in fourth and fifth ahead of Thai driver Alex Albon, who put in a quiet day to finish sixth.
McLaren’s Lando Norris kept clear of the lap-one battle between Sainz and Hulkenberg to finish seventh ahead of Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly.
Nico Hulkenberg’s strong recovery culminated in a promising ninth for Haas, and Antonio Giovinazzi took home the final point of the race from 10th.