Sadly for those enthralled by the sight of a close-fought battle, it could not last for long. Schumacher, knowing that Barrichello in particular, was becoming impatient behind him, began to look at every opportunity of passing Montoya. Several attempts were forcibly rebuffed by the Colombian before the Ferrari got a run down the outside into the tight second corner. Although Schumacher appeared to have eased his nose ahead of the leaders, Montoya responded with a late braking defence but, with tyres smoking, the Williams' tail stepped out of line, causing both combatants to run wide and lose valuable time.
While Montoya had to extricate himself from the verges of the gravel, Schumacher merely had to gun the Ferrari back into the fray, but the delay was such that the pair were now sixth and seventh rather than second and first.
There was still a red car at the front, however, as Barrichello gratefully accepted the chance to lead from Verstappen, Coulthard and Raikkonen. Gradually, the Ferrari eased away from his pursuers, as paddock experts tried to determine the best policy for the Scuderia given that Schumacher's only realistic title rival was now ahead of the German.
Verstappen's tenure of second lasted only as far as his first pit-stop, the Arrows team reasoning that a light fuel load was probably the best way of moving both the Dutchman and team-mate Enrique Bernoldi towards the front. Such had been the pace of the early leaders that Verstappen was able to rejoin in seventh position, comfortably ahead of Irvine and Villeneuve, who remained in close contact throughout the afternoon.
Those who had been stranded at the start gradually filtered back into the race, leaving just Frentzen as a non-participant. The various recoveries never really materialised, however, with Hakkinen rejoining three laps down, completing just one tour and calling it a day. Heidfeld had a more fruitful afternoon, finishing the race two laps down in ninth, while Trulli, no doubt frustrated at seeing fifth on the grid go to waste, rejoined the field as it motored past the pits in crocodile fashion behind the safety car, earning himself a black flag and early bath.
Schumacher's pursuit of the leaders quickly reeled in those at the tail of a now strung out top six. Fastest lap to that point on lap 17 brought the German onto the tail of Olivier Panis and, despite being bottled up for some minutes, Ferrari gave BAR little chance of a reply as it eventually moved past and pulled away. Raikkonen was the next in line and, provided less resistance to Schumacher, Ferrari slicing inside Sauber at turn three and setting off after Coulthard.
The chase was now on for second, as Verstappen had made his stop in the midst of Schumacher's passing moves, and all eyes switched to the timing screens to see by how much the gaps between first and second and second and third were fluctuating.
Schumacher, in particular, was motoring, reeling in Coulthard as the Scot wrestled with traffic. A succession of fastest laps all but brought the German on to the tail of the McLaren, prompting speculation that Barrichello may also be asked to play a part in the result by setting Coulthard up for the pass.
The question was not answered quickly, however, for, following Montoya's demise with hydraulic problems, Schumacher peeled off to make his one and only pit-stop. The Ferrari crew turned the champion around in a shade under nine seconds, returning him to the track ahead of Raikkonen - who had a poor stop when the left rear refused to engage cleanly - Panis and Verstappen.
One lap later and Barrichello was in. There was no obvious attempt to influence the result by holding the Brazilian a fraction too long, however, and he was able to rejoin ahead of Schumacher with 24 laps to run.