Michael Schumacher completed the first hat-trick of the 2003 Formula One season, taking victory in Austria with a degree of excitement rather than the controversy which dogged last year's event.

Starting from a hard-earned pole after two aborted attempts to get the race underway, the German sprinted off in the early stages, giving credence to the belief that he was indeed running on a lighter fuel load than either Kimi Raikkonen or team-mate Rubens Barrichello. The Finn, in turn made a slow start, dropping behind Juan Montoya's Williams-BMW and having to fend off the advances of the second Ferrari until his Michelin tyres came back from their traditional 'drop-off' period.

Schumacher's breakaway was temporarily halted by the appearance of the safety car, sent out to clear up Jos Verstappen's Minardi, which was added to the Sauber of Heinz-Harald Frentzen among the missing after only one lap. The faulty starts - both caused an electrical glitch on Cristiano da Matta's Toyota - had played havoc with the German's car, causing him to try and rejoin in the spare, while Verstappen was left to curse the addition of technology to his machine, when the new launch control system threw the PS03's anti-stall awry and the Dutchman lost all throttle response.

With the lights out on the pace car, Schumacher attempted to bunch up the field as his rivals did in Brazil, only to find a somewhat frustrated Montoya pulling alongside to urge him to pick up the pace. Happy to do so, the leader then found that he had not caught the Colombian with one hand still waving, and had to fend off the potent BMW-powered car into turn one.

The delays to the original start had not only caused mechanicals to fry, but also a few nerves as well, and there were a couple of close escapes as the field attempted to sort itself out on the resumption after the latest interruption. The pace car had been good news for both Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber who, having elected to start from the pit-lane, were now back on the tail of the field, but bad news for Olivier Panis, who opted to pit while the pack was slowed, only to complete his now almost customary post-pit stop retirement within a lap or two of rejoining.

Despite Montoya's efforts to wrest the lead into turn one, Schumacher held firm and then resumed normal service by pulling away from the field all over again. One lap on, the gap was at a second, two laps, two seconds and so on, as he attempted to build up enough of a gap to fit in what many expected to be an early pit-stop.

The weather to this point had defied the experts, who had predicted heavy rain, with only a slow build-up of cloud to obscure the weak sunshine that had graced the A1-Ring all weekend. However, the build-up was steady and, on lap 13, the first signs of moisture began appearing in certain sections. It turned out to be but a brief shower, not requiring wholesale changing of tyres, but the changing surface gradually caught out more and more drivers, with locks and slides occurring thick and fast.

The leader was not immune and, with Michelin generally accepted to have the better compound for the damp, immediately saw his lead eaten into by both Montoya and Raikkonen. As many as four seconds a lap were lost at one stage, before the cloud passed and the track returned to normal.

Any hope that Williams and McLaren may have had of Schumacher stopping early and being on a three-stop strategy all but evaporated with the precipitation when it became clear that the German was stopping at around the same time as the rest of the leading group.

Indeed, it was Montoya who peeled off first, taking only rear tyres with his fuel load and managing to rejoin in front of Raikkonen. Barrichello's stop, however, allowed the Finn a respite, as the fuel hose refused to seat itself on the Ferrari, and crucial time was lost while the mechanics wheeled out the spare rig. The problem initially dropped Barrichello behind Jenson Button's BAR-Honda, but would have more far-reaching consequences...

Schumacher finally made his stop on lap 23, having been delayed by both the news that Barrichello's crew had had trouble and the fact that he had to get passed Webber on his in-lap. Worse was to come, however, when it became apparent that the refuelling problems were not to be restricted to his 'unlucky' team-mate. Again struggling to locate the pump, the Ferrari crew then had to recoil as flame began licking around the lip of the tank. In the cockpit, the world champion remained calm, waiting for the small conflagration to be extinguished before rejoining, but knowing that the stop could not have gone entirely to plan.

In all, the #1 Ferrari was stationary for just over twenty seconds, most of which was occupied with sorting the problem and not pumping fuel. As a result, Schumacher would have to stop earlier and longer next time around, potentially throwing the race to one of his two closest challengers.

The problem left Montoya out front, and holding a comfortable three-second lead over the chasing Raikkonen. The Finn also had red in his mirrors as Schumacher began
charging in an attempt to make up for lost time.

The champion's task was then made easier by the sight of white smoke emanating from one exhaust of the Williams, the irony of an engine problem not lost in a week where BMW voiced its displeasure with the state of the FW25. Montoya was remarkably phlegmatic about the retirement and, having coasted the car back to the pits - around half of the lap - chose to focus on the fact that he had led the race, and led commandingly.

The plume of smoke proved to be a double bonus for Schumacher for he took full advantage of a momentarily distracted Raikkonen to pounce on the Finn entering turn two, claiming both the McLaren and ailing Williams in a short space of tarmac. Once ahead, it was hammer down and away, as the champion aimed to make full advantage of his underweight car to build as big a lead as possible ahead of his second stop.

Approaching half-distance, Barrichello had recovered to third by putting a brave move on Button into turn two, while those now chasing the Briton's distant form included the one-stopping Alonso, Ralf Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve and Nick Heidfeld. The German had lost ground off the start and was soon to succumb to a misfire that was dropping him further and further down the field between pit-stops, while Villeneuve was driving a typically dogged race to recover from his error-strewn qualifying.

Further back again, David Coulthard was putting together his own recovery drive and, having fought his way past both Jordans was closing in on Heidfeld's ailing car. Jarno Trulli was also in the group behind DC, having spun away any chance he had of taking advantage of the misfortune at the head of the field. Likewise Antonio Pizzonia, who had made an aggressive start but lost out in the pit-stops, and da Matta, who had been allowed to start despite the two delays he had caused. The second Jaguar of Webber had temporarily faded from the picture after the Australian was hauled in for a stop-go penalty for parc ferme irregularities thought to include the illegal addition of fuel during the confusion around start time.

After a series of scintillating laps - in which he regularly breached the low 1min 08secs bracket - Schumacher pitted again on lap 42. A noticeably nervous Ferrari crew was a little slow to get the fuel hose located but, this time around, there was none of the earlier drama and, after taking on enough to get to the end, the champion was on his way again.

The stop put Raikkonen back in the lead, with Barrichello following at a safe distance as he also recovered from a slow first stop. The Brazilian was suffering from a heavy cold, and later admitted that this had prevented him from pushing as hard as he would have wanted, but both the frontrunners appeared to be taking their cars to the limit in an attempt to limit Schumacher's gain.

When Raikkonen peeled off for his second and final stop, Barrichello inherited top spot, but it quickly became clear that neither had been able to do enough to counteract Schumacher's flying, low-fuel, laps. Just nine and eleven seconds respectively elapsed while the McLaren and #2 Ferrari were stationary, but still the champion came through to reclaim his lead.

Admittedly, their task had been made slightly more tricky by traffic and also by a trail of fluid left by Alonso who, having completed his one and only stop, had the Renault lock up approaching turn one and spin to a halt on the new tarmac apron. The leaders all ran wide as they encountered the slick for the first time but, despite Schumacher being one of the first on the scene and among the furthest off line as result, nothing was going to halt his march to victory.

Joining Alonso on the sidelines before the finish would be Heidfeld, whose Sauber eventually succumbed to its misfire, and Fisichella, who pulled off with suspected fuel pressure problems. Between their retirements, the luckless Villeneuve lost any hope of joining team-mate Button in the top five when he stalled the second BAR during its final pit-stop. The Canadian eventually rejoined after a change of steering wheel - something he had apparently refused at his first stop after reporting problems - but trailed home a frustrated twelfth, ahead only of Justin Wilson in the remaining Minardi.

With Schumacher leading effortlessly, the focus switched to whether he would be leading the world championship heading to Monaco in a fortnight's time. The German was doing all he could to close the four-point gap to Raikkonen but, with the Finn in second the deficit would only be halved - Schumacher needed Barrichello's help in Austria once more....

The Brazilian did all he could to assist, hacking into the advantage held by the now understeer-plagued Raikkonen, pulling onto his tail with a couple of laps to go. From there, he attempted a series of overtaking moves, most notably through turns three and four on lap 66 - when he actually ran alongside and nosed ahead of the McLaren - only to lose out to the racing line and have to settle for third.

Button completed a low key but successful weekend by equalling his career best finish in the best of the BARs, while Coulthard gained some useful points after another qualifying disaster. Sixth went to Ralf Schumacher who, unable to run at his team-mate's pace as he climbed from tenth, was nevertheless there at the finish despite running out of road at turn three as understeer struck another Michelin runner.

The final point-scoring places fell to the stubborn Webber, who refused to let his two-stop strategy be hampered by a penalty, and Trulli, who battled back after his spin to reap some reward fro his efforts.

Race result:

1. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 68 laps 1hr 24min 04.888secs
2. Kimi Raikkonen Finland McLaren-Mercedes +03.362secs
3. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari +03.951secs
4. Jenson Button Britain BAR-Honda +42.243secs
5. David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes +59.740secs
6. Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW +1 lap
7. Mark Webber Australia Jaguar-Cosworth +1 lap
8. Jarno Trulli Italy Renault-Renault +1 lap

9. Antonio Pizzonia Brazil Jaguar-Cosworth +1 lap
10. Cristiano da Matta Brazil Toyota-Toyota +1 lap
11. Ralph Firman Britain Jordan-Ford +1 lap
12. Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Honda +1 lap
13. Justin Wilson Britain Minardi-Cosworth +2 laps

Rtd Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Jordan-Ford 59 laps completed
Rtd Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas 45 laps completed
Rtd Fernando Alonso Spain Renault-Renault 43 laps completed
Rtd Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW 31 laps completed
Rtd Olivier Panis France Toyota-Toyota 5 laps completed
Rtd Jos Verstappen Holland Minardi-Cosworth 0 laps completed

Dns Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Sauber-Petronas

Fastest lap:

Michael Schumacher Ferrari-Ferrari 1min 08.337secs lap 41

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