Michael Schumacher became the first driver to win two grands prix in 2003 after giving the brand-new Ferrari F2003-GA a debut victory in the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya.

The German led from lights to flag, only losing the lead when he pitted for fuel and tyres, but the real star of the show was local hero Fernando Alonso, who managed to come from the second row to split the two Ferrari drivers on the podium.

Indeed, the Spanish youngster, buoyed by hundreds of blue and gold flags on the terraces as a large proportion of his Oviedo townsfolk made the journey to the Catalan capital to cheer him on, almost split the two Ferraris into the first corner. Such was the performance of Renault's fabled launch control that Alonso powered past Rubens Barrichello on the run to the corner, only losing out as he tucked in behind Schumacher and watched as Rubens took to the grippier outside line.

The Brazilian's impetus then almost gave Alonso a second bite at the cherry, for the #2 Ferrari came mighty close to touch its sister as Schumacher cut across for the left-hander exit. Barrichello took to the dirt, bouncing over the kerb, but still managed to tuck in behind the world champion's rear wing.

That was not the only scrape at the start, however. As the supporting F3000 race had shown on Saturday, the opening corner complex was tight enough with 18 cars trying to funnel through, and Jarno Trulli found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time as David Coulthard attempted to come around the outside of the queue and nudged the second Renault into the tyre wall and retirement.

''It is always a racing accident,'' Trulli lamented, ''but I think David was being a bit optimistic as I was in a queue and he came around the outside.''

Remarkably, however, this was not the first incident of the race - and only 18 cars had to try and find a way through turns one and two in the F1 race as well. Starting from the back of the grid, current points leader Kimi Raikkonen knew that he had much to do if he was to limit the damage caused by his off in Saturday's qualifying, but his move towards the front last all of ten yards as, with the rest of the field moving left, he opted to go right as the lights went out. He then found out why the two Minardis ahead of him on the grid had chosen to go the way they did, for Antonio Pizzonia's Jaguar was stationary on the grid, its launch control having failed for the second race running.

There was to be no reprieve for either man, with Raikkonen's car left stranded in the middle of the track with its right front corner askew, and the luckless Pizzonia scrambling over the pit-wall after his R4 had been pushed off the road. If this is the last we see of the troubled Brazilian in F1, it will have been a sorry exit, for the organisers decided against throwing the red flag, and opted to bring out the safety car, despite the position of Raikkonen's car. As it happened, there was room for the field to filter through on the left of the McLaren, although some decided the time was right to top off with fuel.

For Coulthard, the time was also right for a new set of tyres, as the collision with Trulli has sliced a neat hole in one of his rears. His punishment for playing a part in the incident was to be dropped to the back of the field as the McLaren pit crew checked the rest of his car over, leaving a tough ask if he was to help his team-mate's cause by splitting the Ferraris up front.

When the pace car finally departed, at the end of lap five, Schumacher left the rest of the field trailing as he leapt out to an immediate lead. For a while, it appeared as though the world champion was simply going to take the F2003-GA and run and hide from those behind him, but fears were allayed when Barrichello and Alonso pegged the gap at around a second. The Brazilian, however, was having trouble disposing of the Renault, as Alonso hung doggedly to the rear wing of the new Ferrari. A mistake from Barrichello on lap nine allowed the Spaniard to close even further in - and eked the gap to the leader out towards two seconds - but it was not until the pit-stops started that Alonso had any chance of squeezing through.

After the two Renaults annexed row two in qualifying, the usual debate over fuel loads suggested that both Alonso and Trulli hade been running lighter than the two Ferraris, maybe only by a little, but still lighter. Alonso's disappearance from Barrichello's mirrors on lap 17 tended to confirm the belief but, when the Scuderia called its cars in just two laps later, the thought that the local hero could challenge for victory rose again.

The noise from the terraces took on another decibel or two when it became clear that Alonso's pace in the intervening laps was quick enough to move him ahead of Barrichello, and the Renault duly passed the pit exit as Barrichello trundled out of his refuelling bay. From that point on, it was a two-horse race for victory.

Behind the first three, the first corner melee had served to shuffle the order slightly, with Ralf Schumacher and Juan Montoya among the biggest gainers. The German was already into fourth before his brother and Barrichello enacted their close call, and held the position through until the second half of the race. Montoya, meanwhile, coming from ninth on the grid, benefited fro the Coulthard-Trulli touch, and then jumped Jenson Button on the restart to slot in behind his team-mate.

Button then had BAR colleague Jacques Villeneuve on his tail - rather earlier than either would have expected given the three row difference in their qualifying performance - with Cristiano da Matta and Justin Wilson - after another electrifying start - making up an unlikely top ten. Villeneuve's race was not to last much longer than one-sixth distance, however, as, having succumbed to da Matta, his Honda engine repeated the smoking trick first seen at Imola and left a rather annoyed Canadian throwing his helmet around the pits.

''It's very frustrating,'' JV fumed, ''We took a lot of fuel and made ourselves look silly in qualifying by being so far behind what Jenson did, and then couldn't even use our different strategy in the race.''

The early retirements and pit-stops saw Wilson rise as high as eighth before he, too, had to stop for fuel, but to have even got that far was something of a relief for the lanky Briton. Before the race - as late as minutes before the pit-lane closed - the second Minardi was still being checked for an electrical problem, but Wilson was eventually allowed to join the grid, and again made outsiders sit up and take notice as he rocketed through the pack off the line. Some are saying that the 2001 F2000 champion should be being considered for the Jaguar seat should Pizzonia get the chop and, on this sort of form, it is hard not to understand why, as he expertly fended off a train comprising Giancarlo Fisichella, Mark Webber and Coulthard until breaking off for fuel and tyres on lap 15.

DC's frustration was beginning to get the better of him for, having disposed of the Saubers, Ralph Firman and Jos Verstappen, he then found his progress being impeded by the queue of cars stacked up behind Wilson. Even when the Minardi released the bottleneck, Coulthard was not able to leap to the head of the queue and, in his haste to make up for lost time, did not recognise Jenson Button as a threat for position. In doing so, McLaren and BAR made contact in turn one, with Coulthard nosing across Button's bows and being spun into the gravel trap, Beached, the MP4-17D was going nowhere, and the Woking team could begin packing up earlier than at any time all season.

Button had to make a second stop to check over the car and replace the front wing, but the only other damage was to his hopes of converting a fine fifth place on the grid into serious points. Now at the back of the pack, and on the verge of going a lap down, clawing in a couple of marks was about the best he could aim for.

Alonso's pursuit of the leader was beginning to bear fruit for, the further the Ferrari went from its pit-stop, the more the performance of its Bridgestones ebbed away. With the Renault's Michelin working in the opposite direction, the Spaniard was able to start lopping half seconds from the six-second margin between the two cars - until he, too, ran into traffic. Catching the duelling Minardis and Jordans at just the wrong time, he felt obliged to give rookie Firman a less than cheery wave after being slightly delayed, but gamely kept up the pursuit.

With the Renault inching ever closer to the back of the Ferrari, the Italian team opted to call Schumacher in for his second stop ahead of what appeared to be his original schedule. After a 20-lap opening stint, the German peeled off again just 15 laps later, allowing Alonso to lead the field and send the crowd into rapture.

The status quo was restored not long afterwards, when Renault called Alonso in for his second stop of the afternoon, but the Spaniard's hopes of closing the gap to the leader was enhanced as Schumacher, emerging in fourth place behind the Renault, Barrichello and his brother, found Ralf putting a little more resistance than he had been used to. With Alonso attempting to put in the sort of lap time that had seen him leap-frog Barrichello earlier in the race, it took pressure and a mistake from the WilliamsF1 driver for Michael to get through and begin restoring his advantage.

In fairness to Schumacher Jr, his FW25 had been long-filled at his first stop, as Williams switched from a potential three-stop strategy to two to capitalise on the good starts made by both its drivers. This meant that, when Alonso exited the pits for the second time, he too quickly caught the German - and found him just as hard to deal with.

Although the BMW-powered car was not handling quite as Ralf would have liked, with tyres locking repeatedly into turns five and seven, he managed to keep the Renault at bay for four whole laps. Again, however, it took an error for Alonso to find a way through - and that almost did for Ralf's chances of making the finish, as he ran wide through the long turn three, dropped a wheel off the road and all but clipped the wall on the outside of the circuit. Fortunately, he managed to avoid any contact, but required a longer than expected stop to check the car over for damage.

From second place, this dropped the German to fourth, and right into the hands of team-mate Montoya. The Colombian had been minding his own business for much of the afternoon but, presented with the sight of a white rear wing in front of him, stepped up a gear as he sensed another point on the cards. Hunting down what was now an ailing FW25, Montoya lined Schumacher up as he again ran wide in T5, before spearing up the inside into T7 and held the German off. Once ahead, Montoya simply pulled away, and left his team-mate to be lapped by the leaders.

The route through the pack for both Schumacher Sr and Alonso had now been made easier by the departure of both Heinz-Harald Frentzen - with suspected suspension failure - and Olivier Panis, who again had his Toyota fail on him within seconds of completing a regulation pit-stop.

''Something needs to be changed,'' a frustrated Frenchman sighed, ''We can't afford to go on losing points in this way. It is a shame.''

The two frontrunners completed their third and final pit-stops on laps 49 and 50 respectively - Schumacher again earlier than Alonso - but the gap between them remained the same. Only the threat of backmarker interference - or F2003-GA frailty - was now likely to hand Alonso an emotional home win, but still the plucky Spaniard kept chasing in his press-on style.

Sadly the backmarkers went against him on this occasion - for a grandstand finish would have been something new for the Spanish GP - and, again it was Schumacher Jr in the thick of things. With his car handling worse than ever, the German already had da Matta hounding him, and momentarily held Alonso up through the twisty back section. Again, a wave from the Spaniard and he was gone - along with his hopes of victory.

Schumacher Jr, however, managed to keep the excitement going right to the flag - as did the small group trailing a handful of seconds further down the road. The German was unable to shake the determined da Matta from his tail and, on almost every lap, it appeared that the Brazilian was about to open his F1 account with fifth place. Only the power of Schumacher's BMW engine kept the Williams in front, but it was enough for the German to hold on to a top five finish.

Slightly further behind the scrapping duo, Mark Webber held a seemingly comfortable seventh, leaving Firman and the recovering Button to battle of the final point. The BAR driver had done well to claw his way back into contention for the top eight, but Firman had equal claim to the point - which would be his first since joining the grand prix circus in Melbourne - having disposed of team-mate Fisichella - who later retired with another engine failure - and driven consistently inside the top ten. Although Button closed to within spitting distance at one point, the BAR dropped away in the closing stages, leaving a very satisfied Firman to join da Matta and Webber in opening his account.

''This is absolutely brilliant for me and the team,'' he said as he left parc ferme, ''It was a great race from start to finish. It made a big difference knowing the track and being able to work on the set-up right from the first lap, and the car was great from the start. It's still hard getting used to Formula One, but there is still a lot of speed in me yet.''

Michael Schumacher continued the recent trend of giving the latest Ferrari a debut victory, and closed to within four points of Raikkonen's points lead as a result. However, Alonso's showing suggested that the F2003-GA may not be as big a step forward as many envisaged, giving both Renault and McLaren hope of taking the title fight to the wire.

Race result:

1. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 65 laps 1hr 33min 46.933secs
2. Fernando Alonso Spain Renault-Renault +5.716secs
3. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari +18.001secs
4. Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW +1min 02.022secs
5. Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW +1 lap
6. Cristiano da Matta Brazil Toyota-Toyota +1 lap
7. Mark Webber Australia Jaguar-Cosworth +1 lap
8. Ralph Firman Britain Jordan-Ford +2 laps

9. Jenson Button Britain BAR-Honda +2 laps
10. Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas +2 laps
11. Justin Wilson Britain Minardi-Cosworth +2 laps
12. Jos Verstappen Holland Minardi-Cosworth +3 laps

Rtd Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Jordan-Ford 43 laps completed
Rtd Olivier Panis France Toyota-Toyota 41 laps completed
Rtd Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Sauber-Petronas 38 laps completed
Rtd David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes 17 laps completed
Rtd Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Honda 12 laps completed
Rtd Jarno Trulli Italy Renault-Renault 0 laps completed
Rtd Antonio Pizzonia Brazil Jaguar-Cosworth 0 laps completed
Rd Kimi Raikkonen Finland McLaren-Mercedes 0 laps completed

Fastest lap:

Rubens Barrichello Ferrari-Ferrari 1min 20.143secs lap 52