Michael Schumacher extended his Formula One winning streak to five races with a confident and comfortable victory in the season opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, but his triumph was again to be clouded by tragedy.
The German, having won the final four races of last season en route
to the world title, dominated the Melbourne race from start to finish, only losing the lead during the single round of pit-stops, when McLaren's David Coulthard took over at the front of the field. The Scot could not muster sufficient pace to build an advantage over the Ferrari, however, and had to settle for second place in both race and championship standings.
Schumacher, starting from pole position on the Albert Park circuit, made an uncharacteristically good getaway to lead the field into turn one, while Ferrari team-mate and fellow front row starter Rubens Barrichello did just the opposite. This allowed Schumacher's likely title rival, Mika Hakkinen, to slot into second place, with Heinz-Harald Frentzen getting around Barrichello to assume third. Coulthard, starting sixth after a poor qualifying session, lost further ground as the lights went out, dropping behind Jarno Trulli's Jordan into seventh.
While Schumacher and Hakkinen drew away at the front of the pack, Barrichello wasted little time in attempting to reclaim lost ground. Passing Ralf Schumacher's Williams as early as lap two, the Brazilian was then right with Frentzen as they began the third tour. He was not quite close enough to try an attempted pass at turn three, however, and the two cars touched, sending Frentzen spinning down the order while Barrichello, remarkably, continued unabated.
Further back, Schumacher Jr had fallen into the clutches of Jacques Villeneuve as a result of the mistake that allowed Barrichello through, and the Canadian was quickly looking to make up places in search of BAR's maiden podium. Schumacher defended strongly, taking the middle ground at every opportunity, before the two clashed in the biggest accident of the day.
Unsure of which side of the Williams the gap to pass would appear, Villeneuve was still in two minds when Schumacher braked for turn three, sending the BAR up and over his left rear wheel. Such was Villeneuve's speed at the time of impact that the flat bottom of his car was caught by the air and thrown into the retaining wall on the left hand side of the circuit. Striking the blend of concrete and mesh fencing at unabated speed while off the ground, Villeneuve then endured a rollercoaster ride into the gravel trap, where he was, thankfully, able to climb unaided from the wrecked BAR.
''Ralf was in the middle of the road, and I didn't know which side he let me pass,'' the Canadian admitted afterwards, ''I was still looking inside and outside when he braked.''
Schumacher joined his assailant in the gravel trap, the Williams now minus its rear wing, but was also unharmed. The same could not be said for an innocent bystander, who required medical treatment and prolonged the safety car period called for in order to remove a substantial amount of debris from the circuit.
Eleven laps passed under yellows while the injured were treated and then removed to hospital, causing the teams to reach for their calculators in order to rework fuel mileages and pit-stop strategies. Already without need for such mathematics were rookie Enrique Bernoldi, and early victim of mechanical failure, returnee Tarso Marques and Argentine Gaston Mazzacane, all of whom preceded Schumacher and Villeneuve onto the retirement list.