Leclerc held on for second place with defending world champion Max Verstappen third.
Mercedes’ George Russell finished fourth despite having made a brilliant start from the same position, close dancing through the opening corner with Verstappen, a fierce critic of sprint races.
The pair touched at the second bend and Verstappen nudged the wall moments later with little room left on his right. He was incandescent issuing a number of radio complaints as the Englishman passed him to go third.
‘I don’t see how he can drive into my car and keep his position,’ screamed the Red Bull star. ‘It’s ridiculous.’
Verstappen called for the incident to be investigated. It wasn’t. But he was presented with the chance to retake third place, and he did so after some other early drama courtesy of Yuki Tsunoda pranging his AlphaTauri into the wall at the end of the opening lap.
The Japanese driver’s wheel became detached and started rolling down the middle of the road.
Surely a red flag would be waved, but, no: instead first yellows and then a virtual safety car and finally a safety car. Laps were being wasted.
AlphaTauri mechanics optimistically tried to patch the stricken car back together. They half-succeeded and sent their man back out but the newly attached tyre was at a jaunty angle and the car drifted around for one forlorn lap as if skating sideways.