Michael Schumacher romped to victory in Melbourne, making the most of a double retirement for the McLaren
team to lead home a Ferrari
The German was forced to follow in the wheeltracks of his biggest rivals for the first 18 laps, as polesitter Mika Hakkinen made a good getaway and team-mate David Coulthard
followed suit. As the Finn gradually eked out an advantage at the head of the field, so Coulthard dutifully held off the pressing Schumacher, and it looked for a long time as thought this would be the final result.
However, it was not to be and, in a repeat of last year's race, both McLarens retired within a short space of time. First to go was Coulthard, calling into the pits to have a tyre changed and another, unidentified, problem seen to. The Scot rejoined by went less than half a lap before his engine's pneumatic system gave up the ghost.
Seven laps later, on the 19th tour, Hakkinen too was in trouble. Schumacher had been recording fastest lap after fastest lap without really making much inroad into the Finn's lead, but a second blown Mercedes and the German was into the lead.
It was a sizeable advantage, too, for team-mate Rubens Barrichello
had failed to capitalise on a fourth place start, and dropped behind the lead Jordan of Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Unable to find a way past the vivid yellow machine, Barrichello contented himself with waiting until the pit-stops, but appeared to have blown his only chance with another slow getaway.
Again, fate smiled kindly on Ferrari, however, for Frentzen's stop was even slower, the fuel hose refusing to engage and keeping the German stationary for almost 25 seconds. He had been leading the race after Schumacher made the first scheduled pit call of the new season, but Frentzen's day just got worse. Trying to make up for lost time, he pushed the Jordan to its limits, only for the gearbox to let the car down as it had in testing.
Barrichello was now on a charge of his own, his stop having dropped him behind impressive rookie Jenson Button
and into the lower reaches of the top ten. The Brazilian relentlessly closed on Schumacher, prompting queries as to the health of the lead Ferrari, but it soon became apparent that Schumacher was allowing his team-mate through to make a second pit-stop for fuel and tyres. This completed, Barrichello resumed in the German's wake and held station to the flag.
Behind them, the action was a lot closer, with the outcome of the final podium position and the rest of the top six in question almost to the end.
The demise of Frentzen and the equally unfortunate Jarno Trulli
allowed the surprise figure of Ralf Schumacher to join his brother in the top three. The Williams-BMW was not supposed to be able to run this far up the field, but the team proved it was no fluke as Button quickly joined his partner in fourth. From 21st on the grid, Button's drive had particular merit, albeit helped by an early safety car period, and it appeared for a while that the Briton may be on to follow in the footsteps of compatriots Martin Brundle and Johnny Herbert by scoring points on his debut.