Behind the top four, the pack was already showing signs of thinning out, early retirements accounting for David Coulthard, as engine failure knocked the McLaren man out of fifth, and Eddie Irvine, as well as both Trulli and Button.
Into the Scot's top six place came the remarkable Jos Verstappen who, like seventh-placed Jean Alesi, had taken full advantage of the Button-inspired mayhem at the Rettifilio to gain even more places than his usual rocket start could bring. Sadly, it was not to last for the likeable Dutchman, who slowly began to slip back down the order, being passed first by Alesi and then by Kimi Raikkonen, whose Sauber team-mate Nick Heidfeld had joined the other Benetton Giancarlo Fisichella in starting from the pits after problems on the grid.
No sooner had it looked like being the class of the field, than Ferrari stunned the rest of the paddock by sending its pit crew out onto the apron. Perhaps one of the cars had a problem. Maybe it was tactical to try and vault Schumacher ahead of the stubborn Montoya. But, surely, the home team was not going to try and run a two-stop strategy on the fastest track of the year. Was it?
As incredible as it may have sounded, this was exactly the plan, and explained why Barrichello was able to romp away from Montoya in the ten laps between passing the Colombian and making his stop.
Schumacher was first in, the world champion stationary for a shade over ten seconds, rejoining the race in fourth behind his brother. Barrichello followed suit next time around, but was motionless for a lot longer, after the team experienced some confusion with the fuel hose. The extra six seconds spent sitting helpless would prove very costly....
The Ferrari tactic, borne out of concern regarding overheating brakes, promoted Montoya back to the front, with Ralf acting as his reluctant lieutenant some way back but, importantly, in front of the two red-and-black cars. Montoya's lead was as much as 20 seconds approaching the halfway point of the race - not quite enough to rejoin in front, but close to the numbers required to have a shot at the first victory.
His path was eased by more holes in the midfield, where places had been vacated by Mika Hakkinen, who pulled off at the Rettifilio, and Verstappen, whose slide down the order eventually prompted him to pull out.
Sure enough, Montoya's sole stop dropped him back behind both Schumacher Jr and Barrichello but, with the German yet to stop, the fight now appeared to be purely a South American one.
When Schumacher finally stopped, Barrichello held a 13secs advantage over Montoya, the Williams once again coming under pressure from the second Ferrari as Michael Schumacher closed back in. Not content to rely on his team leader, however, Barrichello promptly banged in a new fastest lap. Williams replied, but it was Ralf who was most on the pace, and the two traded times over the next few tours.
The Williams pit, however, remained in confident mood, for it firmly believed that Ferrari would have to stop again. The belief was proved entirely correct when Schumacher peeled out from Montoya's wake, took on fuel and tyres, and rejoined in fourth place.