David Coulthard made the most of tricky conditions, good calls from his pit-crew and errors by each of his major rivals to add a second Australian Grand Prix
victory to his personal haul and head the 2003 F1 championship table.
The Scot, like most of the field, was presented with a conundrum as race time approached, for the Melbourne climate had left the Albert Park
track damp after earlier rain and 18 of the 20 drivers with a car not set up for the conditions. Only the Minardi team, which had opted to abort its qualifying laps in exchange for the chance to work on its cars overnight, could opt for wet settings, while the rest of the field merely had to ponder which type of tyre to use.
As it turned out, the field was split on the issue, with some using intermediates and others the grooved tyres usually fitted in fully dry conditions. The track was not entirely devoid of moisture as the warm-up lap started, but was clearly drying with each passing minute, causing engineers and tacticians to scratch their heads as they pondered how tyre choice and the probable need to change would affect the fuel strategies that had to be chosen before
Coulthard was among those to opt for more heavily grooved rubber than normal, joining the front row Ferraris, team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, the Saubers - which were also reckoned to be on a light fuel load after 'impressing' in qualifying and others around him in the midfield. On dries, the two Williams-BMWs of Juan Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, Olivier Panis' Toyota
and Justin Wilson, who had little to lose starting right from the back, were hoping to make up early ground.
The Briton's Minardi team-mate, Jos Verstappen, was to start from the pit-lane, reliability problems with the second PS03 rearing their head during the installation period. At the end of the warm-up lap, however, it appeared that the Dutchman would be alone, as McLaren
pulled Raikkonen from his 15th grid slot to change to 'slicks' and top off his fuel level. The Finn had radioed the pits to say he believed that the surface was good for grooved rubber, and that he had little to lose by opting to drop five places in the starting order.
As the five red lights went out, the two Ferraris were almost level, as Rubens Barrichello
found himself unable to prevent his car - still fitted with launch control - from creeping almost a full length out of its starting slot. Still Schumacher made it to the first corner in front, though, while the pack jostled more than usual as their respective tyre choices came into play on the damp main straight.
Fortunately, the conditions did not lead to a repeat of the 2002 first corner incident, although Coulthard appeared to bang wheels with one of the Renaults in the braking zone. At the front, it was the intermediate-shod cars that largely held sway, although both Montoya and Panis made good starts and were able to mix it in the first five. Only as the lap wore on did it become apparent that the dry tyres would need a little time to reach optimum condition, and both Saubers, as well as the two BARs, made early progress. By the end of the first lap of the new - and new-look - season, Schumacher led his team-mate, Nick Heidfeld, Montoya, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jenson Button
and Jacques Villeneuve across the line. From fourth, Panis was already back to eleventh - behind both Renaults as well as Coulthard, and only just in front of Wilson, who had made an inspired start to his grand prix career and lay twelfth overall.
By the end of lap two, it was clear that slicks were the way to go and, with a stiff breeze blowing across the circuit, it appeared that they would remain the choice for the rest of the race. Montoya, having been shuffled out of third by Heidfeld, was quick to regain the spot but, by the time he had done so, was already ten seconds adrift of the two Ferraris. Were the red cars going to disappear into the distance, as they had for much of 2002, or was it simply a factor of respective fuel loads and tyre choices?
Aware of the progress Raikkonen was already making through the rear of the field, McLaren
opted to pull Coulthard in for slicks and fuel at the end of the second lap, dropping the Scot to the rear, but altering his strategy to let him run deeper into the race before requiring another stop. The move also took DC out of what was fast becoming a merry-go-round in midfield, with places changing every lap and the occasional dicey move being pulled by a car on the right tyres or lighter fuel load.