Michael Schumacher completed the first hat-trick of the 2003 Formula One season, taking victory in Austria with a degree of excitement rather than the controversy which dogged last year's event.
Starting from a hard-earned pole after two aborted attempts to get the race underway, the German sprinted off in the early stages, giving credence to the belief that he was indeed running on a lighter fuel load than either Kimi Raikkonen
or team-mate Rubens Barrichello. The Finn, in turn made a slow start, dropping behind Juan Montoya's Williams-BMW and having to fend off the advances of the second Ferrari
until his Michelin tyres came back from their traditional 'drop-off' period.
Schumacher's breakaway was temporarily halted by the appearance of the safety car, sent out to clear up Jos Verstappen's Minardi, which was added to the Sauber of Heinz-Harald Frentzen among the missing after only one lap. The faulty starts - both caused an electrical glitch on Cristiano da Matta's Toyota
- had played havoc with the German's car, causing him to try and rejoin in the spare, while Verstappen was left to curse the addition of technology to his machine, when the new launch control system threw the PS03's anti-stall awry and the Dutchman lost all throttle response.
With the lights out on the pace car, Schumacher attempted to bunch up the field as his rivals did in Brazil, only to find a somewhat frustrated Montoya pulling alongside to urge him to pick up the pace. Happy to do so, the leader then found that he had not caught the Colombian with one hand still waving, and had to fend off the potent BMW-powered car into turn one.
The delays to the original start had not only caused mechanicals to fry, but also a few nerves as well, and there were a couple of close escapes as the field attempted to sort itself out on the resumption after the latest interruption. The pace car had been good news for both Fernando Alonso
and Mark Webber
who, having elected to start from the pit-lane, were now back on the tail of the field, but bad news for Olivier Panis, who opted to pit while the pack was slowed, only to complete his now almost customary post-pit stop retirement within a lap or two of rejoining.
Despite Montoya's efforts to wrest the lead into turn one, Schumacher held firm and then resumed normal service by pulling away from the field all over again. One lap on, the gap was at a second, two laps, two seconds and so on, as he attempted to build up enough of a gap to fit in what many expected to be an early pit-stop.
The weather to this point had defied the experts, who had predicted heavy rain, with only a slow build-up of cloud to obscure the weak sunshine that had graced the A1-Ring all weekend. However, the build-up was steady and, on lap 13, the first signs of moisture began appearing in certain sections. It turned out to be but a brief shower, not requiring wholesale changing of tyres, but the changing surface gradually caught out more and more drivers, with locks and slides occurring thick and fast.
The leader was not immune and, with Michelin generally accepted to have the better compound for the damp, immediately saw his lead eaten into by both Montoya and Raikkonen. As many as four seconds a lap were lost at one stage, before the cloud passed and the track returned to normal.
Any hope that Williams
may have had of Schumacher stopping early and being on a three-stop strategy all but evaporated with the precipitation when it became clear that the German was stopping at around the same time as the rest of the leading group.