Running unmolested for the first in a grand prix this season, Ralf Schumacher was able to lead from start to finish and claim a maiden F1 victory at Imola.

With brother Michael having to retire before half-distance in front of his adoring Ferrari fans, Ralf upheld family honour with a drive very reminiscent of the world champion. Ahead for all but the first few hundred yards, the Williams driver dominated proceedings, and completed the 62 laps without the sort of drama that has dogged his first three appearances this year.

Despite starting 'only' third on the grid, Schumacher Jr wasted little time in making his move to the front, putting his left-hand wheels perilously close to the grass in order to catapult past polesitter David Coulthard on the run to Tamburello. The Scot appeared to get a little too much wheelspin away from the line, while team-mate Mika Hakkinen, starting alongside, suffered on the dirty side of the circuit and held up those starting behind him.

This allowed fifth place man Jarno Trulli to follow Schumacher up the inside, squeezing past the Finn's McLaren through the first chicane, and joining Ralf and Coulthard at the front of the field. Michael Schumacher, meanwhile, suffered behind Hakkinen, dropping to fifth, with Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello faring even worse in dropping from sixth to eighth.

Trulli could not stay with either of the front two for long, as Ralf and Coulthard set a searing pace under the equally hot Italian sun. By the end of the opening lap, the gap was already approaching a second and, by the end of the third, it had jumped out to 5.5secs.

From then on, it was simply a case of how far - and how quickly - could the leaders extend their advantage in order to overcome the perceived penalty of having to make two stops on softer rubber. The tyre choice dilemma had been the talk of the paddock overnight, with Ferrari opting for harder compounds and a single-stop strategy against McLaren's softer option, and opening out a substantial margin over Schumacher and Barrichello would be vital for success.

The Ferrari opposition took an early blow on lap four, when Michael Schumacher slowed coming out of the Traguardo chicane at the end of the lap. The German later pointed to gear selection trouble as the cause, but the moment dropped him behind both Juan Montoya and Olivier Panis, and, later in the lap, behind his team-mate too.

It soon became clear that the front-running Williams and McLaren had the legs on the home favourites, as the gap between the two Schumacher brothers opened out to twenty seconds with the first pit-stop window looming. Although both leaders were circulating at around two seconds a lap faster than anyone else, Ralf also had the upper hand on DC, and quickly had a four-second cushion back to the McLaren.

Further back, there was greater drama, for Michael Schumacher slowed dramatically on the run from Tosa to Piratella. With Panis reclaiming one of the places he had earlier lost to the Ferraris, Schumacher began the slow crawl back to the pits with a front left puncture, careful not to let the deflated rubber cause any more damage than was necessary to the front of his car. By the time he stopped for attention, the leaders were already more than halfway around their 24th lap, and Michael would quickly call it a day when further problems were detected with the Ferrari.

Montoya, driving one of the cars with which the German was dicing, was, like the world champion, thought to have been on a one-stop strategy, such was his pace at the tail-end of the top six, but the Colombian scotched that theory with a pit-stop on lap 27. Remarkably, this was Montoya's first F1 stop, having not made it this far in the previous three events, and emphasised the true manner of his team-mate's pace at the front of the field, which led to a new lap record on the 26th tour.

Schumacher and Coulthard made their stops in short order after Montoya, both emerging from the pit-lane with their original positions intact. Lower down the order, McLaren managed to turn Hakkinen around in time to put him back ahead of Trulli, who had become something of a rolling roadblock for the Finn, while Ferrari waited to pull off perhaps the tactical move of the race, short-fuelling Barrichello in order to put him ahead of Hakkinen, but necessitating a switch from one to two stops for the Brazilian.

By this stage, the lower order had already seen several changes, with Fernando Alonso starting the ball rolling on only the sixth lap when an over-exuberant entry to Variante Alta saw the Minardi driver spearing off into the barriers on exit. Jos Verstappen wasted no time in joining the Spaniard on the sidelines, as his Arrows ground to a halt on the very next lap, while Kimi Raikkonen became the third casualty, the victim of an unexplained failure that pitched him into the wall on the hill to Piratella. Like Alonso, the Finn was unharmed in the impact, but no longer a part of a thrilling scrap for potential points with Panis.

Benetton's day had already been ruined, despite a flying start from Fisichella, which vaulted him ahead of Bernoldi and Verstappen. Team-mate Button made two pit-stops on successive laps as the team struggled with the refuelling equipment, and the Italian's good early work was undone as his B201 continued to be less than user-friendly. Fisichella would eventually retire back in the pits, while Button soldiered on to a lonely twelfth place finish.

Jacques Villeneuve never got to grips with either his BAR or team-mate Olivier Panis, and eventually succumbed to a big engine failure on lap 31, his displeasure evident as he thumped the steering wheel in frustration. Two laps earlier, the race had lost Gaston Mazzacane in smoky fashion, and would later do the same with Eddie Irvine.

The biggest disappointment to neutrals, however, was the demise of Juan Montoya, who found a box of the same just when he need gears and clutch the most. The Colombian was holding down a solid fifth place, with Hakkinen in his sights, when he was first alerted to a possible problem and, with delicious irony, this then manifested itself as he came in to make his second F1 pit-stop.

Wheels on and fuel in - albeit with a delay to the latter - Montoya went to restart but, with no drive, stalled on his marks. Attempts to restart the FW23 resulted in little, until the crew physically dropped a wheel-spinning Colombian off the jacks and down pit-road after an interminable one minute and eight seconds.. That was not the end of the problem, however, and Montoya could only limp back to the pits and another premature exit.

Throughout the middle section of the race, his team-mate held a comfortable ten-second advantage over second-placed Coulthard but, with the second round of stops approaching, the Scot began to nibble away at the gap. Knowing that his best chance of overhauling the powerful BMW-powered Williams was to out-fumble him in the pits, Coulthard put in successively quick laps on the countdown to his stop, but Schumacher responded, between bouts of traffic, to stabilise the margin.

Ultimately, Coulthard's ploy failed to pay off, as both drivers again exited the pits in the positions they had entered them, and the run to the final flag would only see McLaren edge closer to Williams. Despite having to dodge through the lower reaches of the top ten, Schumacher showed commendable composure and, even when the team showed him an 'oil pump' board, he reacted accordingly to ensure his success.

Swooping close to the pit-wall, the German showed his undoubted pleasure to representatives of Williams, BMW and Michelin, who had all waited a long time for the winning feeling to return. Coulthard was just four seconds adrift at this point, but no threat to the victor.

Barrichello and Hakkinen were similarly split, with the Brazilian getting the nod for the final podium position - something for the tifosi at least - while Trulli remained the last unlapped runner in fifth, ahead of team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who ran a largely unobtrusive race to take the final point.

This was Ralf's day, though, and, like Barrichello, Frentzen and Johnny Herbert before him, made every effort to enjoy breaking the establishment's hold on the silverware. No longer a target for his opponents, young Schumacher proved to be the hit of Imola.

Race Result:

1. Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW 62 laps 1hr 30mins 44.817secs 202.062kph
2. David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes +4.352secs
3. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari +34.766secs
4. Mika Hakkinen Finland McLaren-Mercedes +36.315secs
5. Jarno Trulli Italy Jordan-Honda +1min 25.580secs
6. Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Jordan-Honda +1 lap

7. Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas +1 lap
8. Olivier Panis France BAR-Honda +1 lap
9. Jean Alesi France Prost-Acer +1 lap
10. Enrique Bernoldi Brazil Arrows-Asiatech +2 laps
11. Luciano Burti Brazil Jaguar-Cosworth +2 laps
12. Jenson Button Britain Benetton-Renault +2 laps

Rtd Tarso Marques Brazil Minardi-European 50 laps completed
Rtd Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW 48 laps completed
Rtd Eddie Irvine Britain Jaguar-Cosworth 42 laps completed
Rtd Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Benetton-Renault 31 laps completed
Rtd Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Honda 30 laps completed
Rtd Gaston Mazzacane Argentina Prost-Acer 28 laps completed
Rtd Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 24 laps completed
Rtd Kimi Raikkonen Finland Sauber-Petronas 17 laps completed
Rtd Jos Verstappen Holland Arrows-Asiatech 6 laps completed
Rtd Fernando Alonso Spain Minardi-European 5 laps completed

Fastest lap: Ralf Schumacher Williams-BMW 1min 25.524secs