Michael Schumacher began his title defence in perfect fashion at the Australian Grand Prix, running apparently uncontested to a comfortable 54th career victory, and his third straight 'down under'.

The story of the race could have been somewhat different, however, had it not been for a massive accident at the first corner, which took out eight cars, hobbled others and promoted the unlikely into point-scoring positions.

The 22 drivers on the grid - following Takuma Sato's reinstatement on Saturday - were grateful for a dry track to begin the 2002 season, but failed to make the most of it as they rushed towards the first corner.

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Schumacher himself was squeezed out of second spot by polesitting team-mate Rubens Barrichello and brother Ralf, who made a great getaway from third on the grid. Benefiting from the grippier side of the road, both eased ahead of the world champion but, not heeding his call for sense into the first turn, continued to scrap into the braking zone.

Running on a heavier fuel load and cold tyres, Barrichello duly surprised his rival by braking earlier for the corner, having twice moved to defend his line. Ralf, with nowhere left to go, then appeared to miss his braking point completely, vaulting over the Ferrari and skittering into the gravel trap and escape road beyond the corner.

Barrichello, now devoid of his rear wing, spun to a halt, broadside across the road, scattering those in his wake and causing a chain reaction that would decimate the field.

In all, both Saubers, Jenson Button's Renault, Giancarlo Fisichella's Jordan, Olivier Panis' BAR and Allan McNish's Toyota joined the two frontrunners on the injured list, while several others took to the grass and gravel in avoidance. Fortunately, all the drivers directly involved were able to extricate themselves to begin the long jog back to the pits, and all were eager to take the restart.

They were all to be uniformly disappointed too, as the stewards took the decision to deploy the safety car rather than stop the race and risk a repeat on a second start. This left David Coulthard at the head of the field, with Jarno Trulli and Juan Montoya immediately behind him. Michael Schumacher had, with his inevitable luck, found an escape route through the mayhem, as had Kimi Raikkonen, and this pair sandwiched an unlikely looking top ten complement comprising both Jaguars, Sato and the two Minardis, all up from the very back of the grid.

Also counting his lucky stars not to have been involved was Heinz-Harald Frentzen, frantically chasing to make up lost ground having been stranded - along with Arrows team-mate Enrique Bernoldi - on the grid before the formation lap. Both Orange-backed cars were pushed into the pit-lane, from where the German had started - but both would pay for their attempts to capitalise on the carnage.

Raikkonen soon found himself relegated to plumb last as he pitted for repairs to the nose of his McLaren. Although the routine work was completed in mandatory time, the young Finn, making his debut with the team, also complained of debris from the accident being lodged behind his back, and eventually lost some 48secs in sorting the problem to his satisfaction.

With the two Silver Arrows now running at either end of the field, the safety car pulled off after five laps of remedial work at the first corner, but was back in action just two laps later.

Chasing the fleeing Coulthard - and with Schumacher breathing hard on his tail after Montoya out-braked himself into fourth behind the German - the Renault suddenly snapped sideways, before spinning into the left-hand wall with enough force to buckle the suspension and push Trulli back into the middle of the road.

This time, the clean-up operation took just two tours but, by the time the safety car had re-entered the pits, Coulthard has thrown away his hopes of winning the race.

Almost inexplicably, the Scot had run wide entering the final turn, taking to the grass and dropping to fourth by the time he rejoined. This left Schumacher in front, but with Montoya eager to make the most of the restart, as Irvine's Jaguar provided a convenient roadblock between them and the erstwhile leader.

The Colombian closed right up on the Ferrari as the line approached and, sensing that Schumacher was still trying to feel his way on his Bridgestones, made a lunge for the lead into turn one. Despite locking his brakes slightly on approach, the Williams somehow made it far enough around the German to hold the inside for turn two, setting up perhaps the scrap of the race.

This was the one the fans had paid to see, the world champion against the man most would tip as his successor, and they got their entertainment in spades over the next eight laps. Initially able to pull away from the Ferrari, Montoya set the fastest lap to that point on the twelfth tour, but was unable to completely shake Schumacher off his tail. The German, for his part, kept the pressure on by showing his nose to the leader, tempting him into a mistake.

Schumacher's persistence and tactics eventually paid off on lap 17, when he forced Montoya to brake late for turn one and drove by the seemingly stationary Williams as they headed for turn two. Once ahead, and with his tyres now working at their optimum, Schumacher promptly opened out a gap over the rest, and kept extending it until he was able to control the pace to the end.

Montoya's problems were not over, either, as the scrap with Schumi has allowed the recovering Raikkonen to home in on the back of the Williams. Remarkably, Raikkonen had clawed his way into third from the very back, benefiting from the demise of both Trulli and Sato, who motored into the Jordan pit very slowly, and the pace of the McLaren to overhaul the slower cars between himself and the podium.

The Finn also capitalised on the bizarre exit of both Arrows cars, thrown out of the race for transgressing different pit-lane regulations. Frentzen, who had managed to get himself back into contention for possible points, retirements permitting, was handed the first of the black flags after violating the red light in his haste to rejoin the action, while Bernoldi, having switched from his race car to the spare machine during the formation lap, was penalised for doing just that after the stewards decreed he had done so once the race had begun.

Coulthard was also dragging himself back into the action after his misdemeanour but, having closed in on the battle for second, found himself running out of road at exactly the same place as earlier in the race. This time, he rejoined slowly, sensing a problem deep in the electronic heart of his MP4-17, and had to watch as Irvine regained track position for Jaguar.

By the time he went off for a third time - again at turn 15 - Coulthard had also been passed Jacques Villeneuve and lapped by Schumacher, but the biggest cheer of the afternoon to that point was reserved for Mark Webber's elevation into a points position. The Australian cruised past the slowing Scot two laps before Villeneuve did, having managed to stay ahead of the Canadian on merit in the early stages as Villeneuve made an early pit-stop.

The 1997 world champion was not to enjoy a happy 100th grand prix, however, spinning off and severely damaging the sole remaining BAR on lap 28. Debris scattered away from the turn 11 crash site pointed towards a rear wing failure - not a phenomenon unknown to Villeneuve at Albert Park.

The Canadian's demise temporarily promoted Coulthard back into the top six but, just a handful of later, Melbourne was treated to the unlikely sight of both Australian-owned Minardis running in the points as the Scot spun off for a third time and called it quits.

With Schumacher still disappearing into the distance, the main focus of attention returned to the Montoya-Raikkonen battle, which continued to rage even through the final pit-stops. Raikkonen was elevated to P2 when Montoya made his first and only call for fuel and tyres, and promptly put in a couple of fast laps in an attempt to try and overhaul the Colombian during his own stop. The ploy almost worked too, for McLaren returned to the track neck-and-neck with Williams, but Raikkonen's inexperience told, as he carried too much speed into turn one, ran wide and handed the advantage straight back to his adversary.

Alex Yoong's elevation did not last too long, either, as Mika Salo continued his own climb back from the rear of the field, the Toyota driver again displaying fantastic speed through the traps as he homed in on a possible debut point for the Japanese marque. By this stage, just eight cars remained, with Jaguar and Minardi making up exactly half.

With the Montoya-Raikkonen battle subdued by the Finn's exuberance, Salo took up the cudgels of entertainment, rapidly slashing into Webber's advantage over him. Aware of the proximity of his target, the Toyota driver cut seconds from the gap, until he was right with the Australian with two laps to go.

Thwarted on the penultimate tour, as former Ferrari team-mate Irvine blocked him unintentionally, the Finn manoeuvred himself into striking range next time around, before attempting a run on the outside of turn three. Webber, struggling all the while with a loss of traction control, held his line, forcing Salo onto the dirty part of the track - and into a spin.

For the Toyota crew watching eagerly back in the garage, elation turned to frustration, but hearts soon left mouths as Salo booted the TF102 around and back on its way, still in sixth place. With Irvine running solo in fourth, an unexpected top six was guaranteed.

The winner, however, was more plausible, for Schumacher and Ferrari had dominated the weekend. He may not have looked like the top man for much of the weekend - not even on the run to the first corner - but on such things championships are built, and Schumacher will take ten points this way any day.

Race Results:

1. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 58 laps 1hr 35mins 36.792secs 193.011kph
2. Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW +18.628secs
3. Kimi Raikkonen Finland McLaren-Mercedes +25.067secs
4. Eddie Irvine Britain Jaguar-Cosworth +1 lap
5. Mark Webber Australia Minardi-Asiatech +2 laps
6. Mika Salo Finland Toyota-Toyota +2 laps

7. Alex Yoong Malaysia Minardi-Asiatech +3 laps
8. Pedro de la Rosa Spain Jaguar-Cosworth +5 laps

Rtd David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes 33 laps completed
Rtd Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Honda 27 laps completed
Rtd Takuma Sato Japan Jordan-Honda 12 laps completed
Rtd Jarno Trulli Italy Renault-Renault 8 laps completed
Rtd Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari 0 laps completed
Rtd Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW 0 laps completed
Rtd Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Jordan-Honda 0 laps completed
Rtd Felipe Massa Brazil Sauber-Petronas 0 laps completed
Rtd Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas 0 laps completed
Rtd Jenson Button Britain Renault-Renault 0 laps completed
Rtd Olivier Panis France BAR-Honda 0 laps completed
Rtd Allan McNish Britain Toyota-Toyota 0 laps completed

DSQ Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Arrows-Cosworth exiting pit-lane under red light
DSQ Enrique Bernoldi Brazil Arrows-Cosworth switching to T-car after race had started