In that time, both McLarens had had the chance to try second for size, although Raikkonen only seized the position when team-mate Coulthard, having survived the Trulli-Schumacher brush in front of him, pull off and retired with less than three laps under his belt. The Melbourne winner, sensing an opportunity to double his points tally at Sepang, was not a happy man when he returned back to the pits, with the Mercedes engine and its electronics looking likely scapegoats for his exit.
Once into second, Raikkonen initially made little impression on the leader, but gradually began to reel him in to the tune of a few tenths each lap towards the end of Alonso's tenure. When the Spaniard finally stopped, Raikkonen enjoyed a 14-second lead over the best placed Ferrari, which Rubens Barrichello
had thrust back up into second, having been delayed by his team-mate's errant first lap lunge.
The Brazilian's hopes of claiming good points were heightened when, having been on the end of the stewards' wrath in Australia, he observed a penalty being dished out to Schumacher for his part in the skirmish. Already with one stop - in which he took advantage of the wing change to fill right up on fuel - the world champion then had to complete a drive-thru punishment, which dropped him to a lowly 14th on the road.
With not enough time for Raikkonen to build a significant advantage over the Ferrari, Barrichello acceded to the lead when the Finn made his first stop, on lap 19, but only held position for three more laps, setting up a tantalising battle between the two 'number twos' for the rest of the race. Raikkonen re-assumed control on lap 22, while Barrichello dropped back behind Alonso who, despite predictions, was continuing to hang in with the leading duo.
The Spaniard had qualified on pole despite the onset of a 'flu-like fever, and later reported that the symptoms had continued to linger throughout possibly the most gruelling event of the season. However, the 21-year old showed remarkable powers of concentration and stamina as he barely put a foot wrong in his dogged pursuit.
His progress was serene in contrast with that of his aggrieved team-mate. Trulli had avoided having to make an early stop for repairs, but had to battle his way through the midfield before breaking back into the points positions. His first stop, on lap 16 two later than Alonso then dropped him back to ninth spot, a mighty handful of revs before getting away underlining his frustration. Ralph Firman's Jordan did little to lighten the mood, as the Briton christened a promising race day display by fighting the Renault
for position, before Trulli was released by the rookie's pit-stop to home in on Jenson Button
and Ralf Schumacher ahead of him.
The trio ran almost in 'tandem' through the mid-section of the race, with Button and Trulli closing on the German as they battled. Schumacher had perhaps benefited most from the scrap at the first corner and, having again qualified badly via the single-lap shootout, found himself almost immediately in the top eight. With Button and Trulli baring down on the back of the Williams, battle was joined for fourth and only interrupted when the time came for second - and, in most cases, final - pit-stops.
Button was the first to blink, dropping out of the train on lap 34, but almost coasting into his pit-box as he struggled to find gears. The team nevertheless turned the BAR around in 10.8secs, and the Briton appeared to have no problems pulling away and rejoining the fray.
Trulli was right on Schumacher's tail when he got the call to stop, and was slowed slightly when he almost ran into the back of the Williams
instead of taking the wide line into the pit-lane. Like Button, the feisty Italian had problems once he reached for the speed limiter, the Renault
appearing to stop at the white line instead of simply slowing and, when Trulli reached his mechanics, the fuel filler car was shut tight - a sign that the restrictor had deactivated. A long wait for a screwdriver meant that the R23 was stationery for an endless 20+secs before he restarted, although this was still 'good' enough for sixth on the road.
Schumacher's stop, timed at around eight seconds, was problem-free, enabling the German to keep hold of fourth, but there were problems elsewhere. Whether the heat and humidity had got into the works remains to be seen, but both Saubers struggled to get away at the first time of asking, and Mark Webber
struggled to find a cog when he needed one. Olivier Panis managed to get out of the pits, but lasted little more than half a lap before his car slowed, and Firman, too, found himself in trouble, his impressive race seemingly at a sorry end until three of his crew got hold of the Jordan's rear wing and shoved him back into action. The Briton was the only man to make a one-stop call, eventually bringing the sole Ford-powered EJ13 home in tenth.