The Monegasque driver had spent the previous three races playing second fiddle in the team behind the in-form Carlos Sainz but delivered an improved display at Suzuka, having qualified fourth on the grid.
In the race, though, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of being too fast for the Mercedes but not quick enough to catch Verstappen and the McLarens.
Nevertheless, Leclerc later bizarrely stated that he assumed he had been running in third place and was set for a fourth podium of the season.
"I saw [Max] stop at the [virtual] safety car, I don't know what happened then, and I thought he wasn't in the race anymore," Leclerc said.
"He was basically stopped on the left and we all overtook him. So, I thought I was doing a podium until the last lap, when I actually looked at the board and I was P4!"
In a hilarious twist of fate, Leclerc only realised post-race that it was the stricken Red Bull of Perez he had seen retire and not Verstappen.
"Oh right, maybe that was Checo!" he laughed. "Because I thought Max was out of the race at that moment, it was just confusing for me."
Ferrari's pace bid
Following Sainz's shock victory in Singapore, the Scuderia's hopes have been boosted ahead of the run-in to the end of the season.
Indeed, Leclerc has insisted that while they couldn't compete against the McLarens at the power-dominant Suzuka, they will be aiming to return to form as "the second-strongest team in Qatar".
"The pace wasn't as strong as the McLarens and they also had very low tyre degradation," he said. "But a weekend like this is good in a way, because it confirms exactly what we understood in the last few races.
"Sector one [the twisty Esses] is definitely one of our main weaknesses compared to McLaren. That's where most of the time is lost and we'll be working on that for the rest of the season.
"In the last four races we learned a lot about our car, but there are still characteristics we cannot change until the end of the season.
"I hope we can come back to being the second-strongest team in Qatar."
GPFans is a multi-platform, multi-language brand dedicated to Formula One coverage. We bring you all the ins and outs of the sport, 24/7, everything from up-to-the-minute news and features to the latest viral stories and clips.
We believe that a new generation of exciting, outspoken drivers will make F1 more popular than ever before, and we want to give our users access to as much of their heroes as possible, on and off the track. From Lewis Hamilton to Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo to Sebastian Vettel, we provide in-depth analysis of every every Grand Prix in the season, from Australia to Abu Dhabi.
With Formula One under the new ownership of Liberty Media, how the sport is being covered is evolving, and GPFans will look to be at the heart of this progression into new media, as one of the fastest-growing sites covering the king of motorsports.