Of more concern to the rest of the field, however, was the rate at which the two scarlet cars were leaving the rest of the expected frontrunners behind. By this point, it had become apparent that both Williams drivers were running heavy, but the suspicion remained that perhaps both Schumacher and Barrichello were not exactly light either.
It came as some relief, therefore, when both Ferraris dived for the pits when the safety car was scrambled to remove Panis' stranded BAR from the main straight. The Frenchman had been running competitively in the midfield when the Honda engine behind him let go without warning, seizing the rear of the car solid and pitching Panis perilously close to the pit-wall. A brief flash fire followed before the driver hopped out but, with no drive, the car had to be craned away.
Schumacher, Barrichello and Villeneuve all ducked into the pits, looking to gain as big an advantage whilst the Mercedes CLK toured around as possible. JV's ambitions were dashed slightly, however, when he was then called in for a drive-through penalty as payback for the assault on Frentzen at Remus first time around. Schumacher resumed behind his brother, having had to queue for fuel behind Barrichello, but the Brazilian was able to regain the lead immediately.
Surprisingly, the trio were the only ones to take advantage of the field's slow progress, but the rest were given a second chance not long after the pace car disappeared.
Within two corners of the restart, Heidfeld and Takuma Sato were involved in a sickening accident that left the Japanese rookie in need of medical assistance, and the German visibly shaken as he climbed from his wrecked car.
The incident began some 100 yards from the corner, when Heidfeld's Sauber veered right under braking, possibly as the result of a suspension failure, spun as he applied the brakes, and headed backwards towards the apex. The grass verge did little to slow the blue car's progress and, having shot across the bows of Montoya's Williams, struck Sato's Jordan squarely amidships, The Sauber's momentum took both cars far into the gravel but, with debris spread across a wide area, the organisers had no option but to call a full course yellow.
Heidfeld was able to climb from what remained of his car, but Sato was clearly in more trouble. Although able to communicate with Dr Sid Watkins and his medical staff, the Jordan driver had to be helped from his shattered EJ12 and was carried to the waiting ambulance on a stretcher with oxygen mask firmly in place. It was a relief to all who witnessed the impact, therefore, that initial reports gave the Japanese driver a promising bill of health before he was airlifted to nearby Graz hospital for precautionary scans.
With the safety car out for eight laps, most of the field took the opportunity of resuming at the halfway point refuelled and rebooted. Only the Williams duo stuck to their original gameplan. The order at the restart had Barrichello still firmly in front, with the Schumacher brothers in line astern, separated only by the backmarkers they hadn't cleared before the pace car reappeared. Montoya held the fourth place he had inherited from Heidfeld on lap two, with Coulthard now holding off Sato's team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella for fifth.
The Italian dropped away from the McLaren when he made his own pit call, allowing the mercurial Villeneuve into the points, and the Canadian wasted little time in dealing with Monaco neighbour Coulthard to assume fifth. This became third when, finally, the white-suited Williams mechanics filed into the pit-lane to receive, first, Schumacher Jr, then Montoya.
The timing of the stops was crucial, and the Colombian, opting not to take on new rubber, was able to build on his flying in lap to emerge from the tight pit-lane fractionally ahead of his team-mate. The race was on for third, however, with Ralf still visibly the quicker of the pair, and it was this fight - and the one for fifth - that kept the crowd entertained to the end.