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.

Coulthard and Barrichello also remained in close company, despite refuelling some laps apart, and continued to hold a comfortable advantage over their immediate pursuers as the race settled down into what - to the untrained eye - appeared to be a quiet mid-section.

This perception changed as the second stops neared, with Schumacher visibly closing the gap to the leader. Both lost time momentarily behind slower cars - Schumacher almost running into the back of Pedro Diniz as the Brazilian tried to let him through - before Hakkinen finally peeled off into the pits. McLaren turned him around in a shade under nine seconds, but it was clear that Ferrari had no intention of stopping at the same time.

Schumacher stayed out and continued the charge which had begun several laps earlier. By the time of his stop, four laps later, it was touch and go whether he had enough in hand, but the Ferrari crew performed miracles to get him out again before Hakkine had barely reached the pit straight.

From then on, the German was untouched, despite Hakkinen closing in as the laps ticked down. The Finn racked up the race's fastest lap with just four remaining, but could do nothing to spoil the tifosi's party two days in a row. Schumacher still had over a second in hand as he passed the flag, and the celebrations broke out immediately on the hillsides surrounding the track.

Almost in view in front of the leader, Barrichello was now behind Coulthard. The pair had pitted at the same time for their second stops and, despite the Ferrari appearing to get in and away first, McLaren pulled Coulthard off the apron just in time to prevent the scarlet car from accelerating past. The move didn't go down well in the home camp but, once ahead, the Scot was able to show to what extent he had been held up in the early going, to open out a 38-second gap to the Ferrari.

Behind them, Villeneuve and the improving Mika Salo enjoyed a late race battle over two points, only interrupted when the leaders arrived on the scene intent on preserving their own gaps through lapped traffic. Salo was the biggest loser, backing right off to allow both Schumacher and Hakkinen racing room, and dropping away from the BAR just when it mattered most.

Irvine defied a mid-race problem, which dropped him out of seventh, to reclaim the position at the end, edging out the spectacular Diniz, and the dogged pairing of Alex Wurz and Johnny Herbert. Both Jaguars made it through, but it wasn't easy for either, while the Benetton boys showed nothing of the form which presented Giancarlo Fisichella in second at Interlagos.

Trulli was a late casualty, dropping out of seventh, while both Arrows, both Prosts and both Williams also dropped by the wayside.

Schumacher had been trying to convince the cynics that he had the beating of McLaren on the track, and today was his chance to prove it. Admittedly, the Ferrari never quite looked to have the legs of its silver rival, but then Schumacher had the extra trump card of his tactical crew. He is now 21 points clear in the title race - with his team-mate as his nearest challenger - but let no-one fool you into thinking it is over. McLaren proved that it, too, can go the distance, and will be aiming for more than second place from now on.