As a result, the German was not able to play a part in perhaps the best action of the season, as positions eight to 15 fought tooth-and-nail in a high-speed train. With the midfield closely matched, and the tricky surface still causing mistakes, the order was ever-changing until the first round of pit-stops interrupted the flow of overtaking moves.
The interest was further spiced by problems for both Renaults, and a strong recovery drive from Villeneuve, who was up to the fringes of the top ten after scything past rivals on consecutive laps. Button, meanwhile, was moving in the opposite direction as, having got up to tenth at the start, he began to suffer differential problems and a loss of power that saw him slip right to the back of the pack. Incredibly, team-mate Trulli also saw his good work off the line go to waste, as his tyres began to go away, leaving him at the mercy of those coveting his initial sixth place.
The Italian was the first to pit, giving up tenth place in the process, but began a process that saw much of the midfield train disintegrate around one-third distance. He also rejoined in front of the chasing Williams
of Ralf Schumacher who, having managed to pull out a gap over Barrichello, then had to do it all again as he was held up by the Renault. Naturally displeased, a blue-gloved fist rose from the cockpit of the FW24, earning Trulli a drive-thru penalty for his pains.
By this stage, it was clear that neither Ferrari
was running a lighter fuel load, and it wasn't until lap 27 that the leader pulled in for new tyres and fuel. Added to the retirement list by then were Mark Webber, who crawled back to the pit-lane, Allan McNish, who was robbed of a good result by hydraulic failure immediately after his pit-stop, the luckless Button and Jacques Villeneuve, who slowed with engine problems.
With Schumacher's Ferrari
stopped, his brother banged in the fastest lap of the race in an attempt to close the gap and seize the lead on his own pit-call but, again, luck was not on Ralf's side. This time, he came across the crawling Villeneuve at the entry to the pits, and lost a couple of seconds before the BAR pulled aside to allow him through. When he rejoined, Ralf was no better off than he had been...
After the top six had pitted, the order remained much the same as it had before, with the McLarens of Raikkonen and David Coulthard
giving vain chase to the leaders as their cars failed to reproduce their Magny-Cours form. In an attempt to gain time and ground, Raikkonen even opted not to change tyres on his stop, but was to pay the penalty twelve laps later when his left rear blew approaching the braking area for the new hairpin.
Somehow, the young Finn kept control, wrestling the McLaren
back on track before setting off at speed for the pits. In a recreation of the late Gilles Villeneuve's antics, the car quickly shed the offending rubber, causing Raikkonen to take a short cut across gravel and grass before he made it to the garage, where his second pit-stop was duly carried out, albeit dropping him to 14th on the road.
One lap later, any hopes Renault
had of salvaging points from what was quickly becoming a race of attrition evaporated when Trulli spun his R202 into the barriers at Sachskurve, and BAR, too, was left to pack up early, when Olivier Panis spun away sixth place at the new second corner.
The second round of stops began on lap 44, with Felipe Massa
heading the midfield charge for new boots, but the now strung-out order was not to change much until Barrichello came in for his refill. Incredibly, given his season of misfortune, the Brazilian was kept waiting for some 21secs as the first attempt to refuel went awry, dropping him behind Montoya by the time he rejoined the fray.
Now safe in second place, Ralf opted not to take on tyres as he made one last attempt to catch and pass his brother and repeat his 2001 victory, but almost ran down his 'lollipop man' in his haste to get away. The hesitation when he realised the stop board was about to hit his visor prevented him from making any inroads into the deficit, but he was able to keep his position as team-mate Montoya opted for tyres and fuel.