By this point, Panis had already compromised his good qualifying position by locking up and spinning at turn one, rejoining twelfth, to provide the only other incident of the early stages.
The opening round of stops failed to produce any major change of position, but did increase Ralf's advantage over his brother. Having recorded two successive pole positions in Monaco and Canada, third place might have been seen as something of a disappointment for the young German but, when he managed to complete a full four laps more than either Raikkonen or brother Michael in his first stint, the performance took on a whole new light. The Williams crew turned Ralf around in 7.7secs, including a tweak of extra front wing, and he was able to rejoin with a comfortable advantage over the leading Ferrari.
This left him ideally placed to assume control of the race when, just five laps later, Raikkonen approached the Dunlop hairpin with a plume of smoke billowing from his left-side exhaust. Pulling off just beyond the corner, the disappointment was clear to see in the Finn's body language, as he rejected all offers of assistance from the marshals and retired to ponder what was looking set to become a major deficit in points.
As the attending journalists sharpened their pencils to prepare 'Mercedes hands Schumacher advantage' headlines, the second round of pit-stops began to cycle through as the race passed half-distance. Pitting earlier than their Williams rivals, the period proved to be crucial for both Ferrari pilots, with Michael Schumacher emerging immediately behind the battle for fifth between the two Renaults - Alonso now ahead of Trulli - and David Coulthard. The German's 'misfortune' meant that, when Ralf rejoined from his stop five laps later, the gap between them had grown again.
More importantly, however, team-mate Barrichello's stop proved to be over a second longer than Montoya's and when the stagger had unwound, the Colombian found himself running in third place. More to the point, the Williams-BMW was immediately lapping faster than the #1 Ferrari ahead of him and closing in on a possible move for second.
The opportunity arose on lap 43 as, approaching the Dunlop corner, Montoya moved to the outside to take a run at Schumacher. Ordinarily, contact between two cars in that position would result in the one furthest from the apex rotating but, in this case, it was Schumacher who found himself at a disadvantage as the Ferrari looped into a gentle spin as Montoya went through.
The world champion found himself with his rear wheels beached in the gravel, but the nose of the F2003-GA still on the black ribbon of tarmac that it separated from the noisy crowd enclosures. Deeming himself to be in a dangerous position - and therefore eligible for assistance - Schumacher beckoned for the marshals to push him back into the race, which they duly did with the loss of 'only' four places.
The incident not only elevated Montoya to second, but also Barrichello to third and the battle between Alonso and Coulthard to fourth and fifth, Jarno Trulli having crawled to a halt a handful of laps beforehand. While the three leaders were spaced out and unlikely to challenge each other before the chequered flag appeared, Coulthard was all over the back of Alonso's evil-handling Renault.
The Spaniard was having to wrestle the R23 into each and every corner, causing Coulthard to believe that he could take advantage of the slightest slip. Alonso was not about to surrender meekly, however, and defended for all he was worth, causing Coulthard to lock up on more than one occasion into turn one, and take evasive action at the chicane on lap 58.
With typical timing - immediately following television pictures showing McLaren boss Ron Dennis consoling Raikkonen with the news that his title rival would only finish sixth - the conflict came to an unsatisfactory conclusion four laps from home. DC unexpectedly found himself closing on the Renault on the run to the revised chicane and, expecting Alonso to hold his line on the right-hand side of the road, prepared himself for a lunge to the left. Then, sensing that the Renault was edging that way under braking, the Scot reacted to the right, narrowly avoiding contact with Alonso's right rear wheel but, on touching the grass, finding himself taking a bumpy broadside ride into the gravel trap.