Michael Schumacher made it six of the best with success in Sepang, but the Malaysian rain gods made him work for what turned out to be another comfortable victory.
The German made the best of his pole position to lead away when the lights went out, and appeared to have made a clean getaway - unlike those behind him. In a race dominated by early lap incidents, the first came as soon as turn one, when a slow starting Rubens Barrichello misjudged a gap to the inside of an inspired Ralf Schumacher, and spun the Williams driver through 180 degrees in front of the pack. After his fantastic qualifying performance, this was less than Schumacher Jr deserved, but he was soon to be helped in his recovery.
As Melbourne rookie sensation Kimi Raikkonen coasted to a first lap halt, and Eddie Irvine recovered from his own turn one spin, the rest of the field began to string out in Michael Schumacher's wake, with Barrichello surviving in second, but followed by David Coulthard and Jos Verstappen - up from eighth and 18th respectively!
Next to go was Olivier Panis, whose Honda engine blew in spectacular fashion, pitching the BAR backwards through its own flame into the gravel trap, and leaving a coating of oil across the turn as the leaders approached on their third lap. To make matters worse, the wet warm-up conditions returned with a vengeance on just the part of the circuit, creating a lethal mix of oil and water and turning half of the circuit into a veritable skid pan.
First to arrive, Schumacher and Barrichello flew off the road, although both managed to circumnavigate the gravel trap and rejoin - remarkably without ceding too may places. Further back, others were less lucky, reducing the field by five cars at a stroke, and delaying many more. Those to depart the fray at this point included Jacques Villeneuve - compounding a miserable two minutes for BAR - Nick Heidfeld - doing likewise for Sauber - Enrique Bernoldi, Juan Montoya and Irvine.
Montoya had already been left stranded on the grid at the second time of asking as the incident list began even before the first green flag appeared. With Heinz-Harald Frentzen crawling around the initial warm-up, Giancarlo Fisichella wrong-slotted on the reformed grid, bringing out the red flags. The Italian was duly relegated to the rear of the field at the second start, but Montoya was less lucky, going nowhere when the formation lap began except back into the pits under marshal power. a quick sprint to the Williams garage saw him take to the spare but, as it turned out, he needn't have bothered.
The rain storm, despite falling on just one half of the circuit - turns one to four, amongst others, remained dry, was of monsoon proportions, and it was not too long before the organisers decided to call for the safety car as rooster tails of spray billowed behind even the slowest cars. When things finally shook out, it was Jarno Trulli at the head of the field - although the Italian would immediately fall foul of the conditions, leaving Coulthard, the first of all to stop after seeing both Ferraris skate off, at the head of the field.
Behind the Scot the order constituted Frentzen, the remarkable Verstappen, Mika Hakkinen - who had made a poor start - Trulli, Alesi, Fisichella, Ralf and Gaston Mazzacane before we got to the first Ferrari. Barrichello, rejoining the track quicker than his team leader, had duly made it back to the pits first, but was then delayed by a long stop while tyre choice was debated and debris removed from his sidepods. Schumacher fared even worse, being trapped behind the Brazilian in the pit queue at Ferrari, and rejoining a lowly eleventh.
The deliberation among the Scuderia was immediately proved worthwhile, however, when the safety car finally pulled off. Schumacher had opted for intermediates - while those around him plumped for full wets in light of the downpour. Aware that it had stopped raining fairly quickly, the reigning champion decided to take his chances on half-cut rubber, and the fact that the Malaysian sun would ultimately dry the circuit, to swap initial grip for longevity in his tyres.