Two-time defending champion Verstappen was leading Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton with a few laps to go when Kevin Magnussen crashed his Haas into a wall, leaving debris on the track and stopping the race.
The cars returned to the grid with fresh tires for a two-lap sprint to determine the winner, but in a chaotic restart Williams driver Logan Sargeant ran into the rear of AlphaTauri’s Nyck de Vries to send them both into the first corner of the grid. to hit gravel.
Alpine drivers Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon then crashed into each other to leave a trail of debris on the track and trigger another red flag, the third and final of the race.
After much deliberation, the stewards decided that the race would end with one lap behind a safety car in the order of the previous start – minus the cars that had crashed.
That enabled Verstappen to claim his second win of the season ahead of Hamilton with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso third in a race that saw eight of the 20 cars fail to finish.
Red Bull have now won all three grands prix in the new season, a record for the team, resuming their dominance after their huge success in 2022.
“It was a bit of a mess, but we survived everything… and we won, which is of course the most important thing,” said Verstappen after his first win at Albert Park and Red Bull’s first since 2011.
“This is a very good weekend for us, we should be happy with that.”
The Dutchman has 69 points in the championship race, 15 points ahead of teammate Sergio Perez.
Alonso, third in all three races, is third in the standings with 45 points.
Red Bull has a big lead in the Constructors’ Championship with 123 points, ahead of second-placed Aston Martin (65) and third-placed Mercedes (56).
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Mercedes’ first podium of the season soured when George Russell retired for the team for the first time after losing power and stalling with his engine on fire early on.
“It’s really bad luck for George on our side today,” said seven-time world champion Hamilton.
“Otherwise it’s really great to get those points today. I definitely didn’t expect to finish second, so I’m so thankful for it.”
It was a dark day for Ferrari, with Charles Leclerc knocked out of the race at the first corner after being clipped by Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.
His Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz survived all the carnage and was on the verge of finishing fourth, but a five-second penalty for making contact with Alonso saw him demoted to 12th and raging on the team radio.
Stroll was instead fourth on a big day for Aston Martin, while Perez was fifth after starting his race from the pit lane following his disastrous Saturday qualifying.
McLaren’s Lando Norris was sixth ahead of Haas’ seventh-placed Nico Hulkenberg.
McLaren rookie Oscar Piastri celebrated his first points with eighth, while Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu and AlphaTauri driver Yuki Tsunoda rounded out the top 10.
Verstappen had to recover from a poor start as he lost his lead to both Russell and Hamilton in the opening three corners.
But after two early safety cars and a red flag when Williams driver Alex Albon crashed, Verstappen retook the lead by passing Hamilton on lap 12 after Russell pitted for an early tire change.
Verstappen put a big gap before the late red flags saw the race flip from procession to drama and back again.
Drivers and team bosses wondered if the red flags were necessary, or if safety cars might have saved a lot of effort.
“Obviously these kinds of results are good for some teams and bad for others,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff told reporters.
“We need to understand in the future when red flags are raised and what a safety car is?”