Red Bull’s reliability drama saw Carlos Sainz trail his home team-mate in second, while Lewis Hamilton took a shocking third place for Mercedes.
At the start, Leclerc and Verstappen left the line in unison, the Ferrari swinging quickly to its right to cover the Red Bull and seal the inside line for the first corner.
There Verstappen braked later and found himself completely beside Leclerc, but the leader’s position on the inside allowed him to easily pass in front in turns 2 and 3 and then squeeze once on the short straight to turn 4 right, where it drifted away. clear in mind.
Leclerc was already out of DRS reach ahead of Verstappen at the end of the first lap of 57, with Sainz chasing the world champion and being followed by Hamilton, who had edged Sergio Perez as the Mexican slid out of Turn 1, falling behind Kevin Haas from Magnussen accordingly.
Over the following laps, Leclerc – using new soft tires rather than used ones on Verstappen’s car – pulled away from rival Red Bull who at one point complained that his mid-engine braking turn was “funny”.
Leclerc’s gap widened by a few tenths per lap, the duo being the only leading riders to be able to stay regularly in the 1m38 bracket.
By lap 10, Leclerc’s lead had reached three seconds, with Sainz slightly further behind and now ahead of Perez, who had passed Hamilton after the Mercedes driver fell from the pressure on Sainz to fall back unable to keep pace with head.
At the end of lap 14, Verstappen and Sainz, who had also started on used softs, came on to take new ones, Leclerc stopping at the end of the next lap to do the reverse.
Verstappen had used his fresh rubber lap to completely erase Leclerc’s lead, but the Ferrari managed to hold on to the lead as they exited the pits.
But the next time around at the start of lap 17, Verstappen used DRS to close a 0.7s gap and dive inside Leclerc at turn one, taking the lead with a thrilling move on the inside line, although briefly because Leclerc used the DRS. himself on the run towards Turn 4, retaking the lead with a daring pass to the outside of Red Bull.
The same sequence repeated itself on the next lap, albeit this time with Leclerc regaining the lead by pinching the inside of Verstappen on the approach to Turn 4, then pulling well past his rival to regain the lead.
On his third attempt at Turn 1, this time on lap 19, Verstappen dropped 0.9s behind to send a wild move on the inside, but this time he locked in heavily and the Ferrari was able to backtrack and run clear, moving out of DRS range.
The block and loss to DRS sapped Verstappen’s momentum, as he fell back to run in the low 1m38s while Leclerc chained a series of medium-to-high 1m37s that quickly restored him to a three-second advantage.
At the halfway point, Leclerc was running four seconds short of the good, losing a piece by lapping Nico Hulkenberg before recovering it and more as Verstappen rounded temporary replacement Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin.
Red Bull stopped Verstappen first on the second lap of pitfalls, dragging the Dutchman to go medium at the end of lap 30, with Ferrari asking Leclerc to cover him exactly next time.
Leclerc emerged much further this time around, despite Verstappen lapping slightly faster than before, with Ferrari beating Red Bull at the hover time by half a second.
The pair immediately reached the 1.36m slice they hadn’t done earlier, even as they turned traffic at the start of the third stint, where Verstappen angrily told Red Bull he had taken the easier way out than he wanted and would. “Never again” do it again, such was his fury at having stayed so far behind Leclerc even with an undercut advantage.
Although Verstappen cut Leclerc’s lead to two seconds behind in the laps immediately after their second pit stop, the Ferrari were soon able to restore their advantage, with Leclerc retaining the mid-1.36m as Verstappen fell to around 1.37m.
By lap 43, Leclerc had reduced his lead to four seconds, when Red Bull opted to bring both cars in for a third stop – Perez having run medium on his second stint, then closed in to run adrift de Sainz, well behind the two leaders.
Ferrari appeared to be leaving Leclerc out to see the race over a two-stop, with Sainz brought in to cover Perez, but the final stages were made more dramatic when Pierre Gasly retired with an engine problem that became an engine fire on the race. Lap 46 – the AlphaTauri came to a stop on the exit of Turn 3, just at the start of the short second straight.
The virtual safety car was activated but the full safety car was put into action, that’s when Ferrari brought in Leclerc and he was able to pick up another set of softs for the restart.
The race resumed at the start of lap 51, with all turned cars cleared to overtake, before which Verstappen complained loudly that his steering was getting heavier on the corners and on the straights, with Red Bull moving to tell him that would be a problem. until the end of the race that he would also have to adapt.
When the safety car arrived, Leclerc picked up his racing speed as Verstappen was pinched against the penultimate corner and was so clear the action became Sainz’s attack for second place.
Verstappen forced the Spaniard into the outside line, with the pair quickly falling behind Leclerc, who took another 1.6s lead with the fastest lap of the race – 1m24.570s.
He pulled away easily to win in 5.5 seconds, earning his maiden Bahrain GP win at the site where he lost a career-first F1 victory to a late engine problem three years earlier.
But it was Sainz who was able to follow Leclerc home as Verstappen went from complaining about his steering issue to pointing out a battery issue which Red Bull initially dismissed and then flagged as a fault to which he could do nothing.
With two laps to go, Verstappen suddenly backed up on the penultimate straight, then crawled to the pits to retire, Perez then signaling a loss of power as Hamilton – who had executed a soft, hard, three-stop medium and soft – came closer. threaten an improbable Mercedes podium.
Just when it looked like Perez might hang on, he spun into Turn 1 on the final lap, his engine gripping and spinning his rear end, putting him in place.
Hamilton therefore finished third, 9.6 seconds behind Leclerc, George Russell fourth having quickly climbed the classification from ninth on the grid in the first stages and followed his teammate 14 seconds behind before the safety car period .
Magnussen worked his way up to fifth, having raced most of the race between Russell and Gasly, with Valtteri Bottas recovering from a slow start to finish sixth.
Esteban Ocon and Yuki Tsunoda edged Fernando Alonso ahead of the safety car, with this trio taking seventh to ninth at the flag.
In his first F1 race, Zhou Guanyu finished 10th to claim a first championship point, with Mick Schumacher 11th for Haas, ahead of Lance Stroll, who led the former home riders well adrift of the peloton – the restart having taken place before they could catch up.