Michael Schumacher and Ferrari
landed an early season hat-trick of victories by winning the San Marino Grand Prix in front of an adoring tifosi this afternoon.
The triumph had looked unlikely for the majority of the race, but the correct strategy, and a handful of flying laps from the German, were enough to overturn Mika Hakkinen's early advantage and take Schumacher even further ahead at the top of the championship.
Schumacher had apologised to his fans yesterday from making a mistake which deprived him of pole position, and it looked at the start of the race as though he may have had to grovel some more as massive wheelspin propelled across the track instead of along it. The problem was sufficient to allow Hakkinen to convert pole into a comfortable lead heading into Tamburello, but caused team-mate David Coulthard
to have to back off as Schumacher speared across his bows.
This then had the knock-on effect of allowing the second Ferrari
of Rubens Barrichello
a run at second place but, although the Brazilian backed off enough to allow the recovering Schumacher through, he maintained enough momentum to keep Coulthard at bay exiting the first corner.
Behind the leading quartet, birthday boy Jacques Villeneuve made an absolute pearler of a getaway, and could have made all the way to third before being blocked by Barrichello. Instead he settled for a handy fifth place, having vaulted past both Jordans, Eddie Irvine's Jaguar and Ralf Schumacher in the lead Williams. Further back, Nick Heidfeld's miserable weekend continued as he was left stranded on the warm-up lap and had to start from the pits.
Hakkinen and Schumacher quickly stretched away at the front, opening out a ten-second gap to the chasing Barrichello in very short order. Coulthard, for his part, remained stuck to the Ferrari's gearbox, clearly faster but ruing the calamity at the green light.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen was the first casualty - Gaston Mazzacane having recovered, laboriously, from his lap two spin - as the Jordan toured back to the pits with only sixth gear available to it. A lap later, and British new boy Jenson Button
was out, the victim of yet another blown BMW, and taking Marc Gene
with him for good measure.
The order at the front the settled down, with the front four split into their own battles and Villeneuve content to lead the rest ahead of Jarno Trulli, Irvine and the recovering Ralf Schumacher. The German had been the biggest loser at the start, being forced onto the grass by his brother's enforced swerve, and dropping almost out of the top ten as a result.
Through the first round of pit-stops and the order remained unaltered, as Hakkinen began to ease away from Schumacher. The German lost a couple of seconds on the stop itself, as tactician Ross Brawn emptied a little more fuel into the Ferrari's tank with a view to stealing a march on McLaren
next time around.