Up front, Schumacher and Barrichello were already eking out a gap over Alonso, the German quickly running at sub-pole times while his young Spanish rival found himself having to contend with Button and Trulli. The pace was hot, but was revealed to be the result of a relatively light fuel load, as Barrichello stopped for the first time on lap eleven and Schumacher one tour later. The strategy was the right one, however, for, with the exception of Coulthard, the two Jaguars and Olivier Panis' Toyota, the rest of the field was poised to follow suit.
Montoya's day got even worse when a tardy stop undid all the hard work he had put in in wresting sixth place from his Williams team-mate early on. Emerging behind the hobbled Trulli, the Colombian began losing time to even the best of the non-Ferrari runners, hampering his chances of keeping the Scuderia duo in sight points-wise, if not necessarily on the road.
Montoya eventually forced his way past the Italian, before another poor pit-stop threatened to drop him in behind the Renault once again. Fortunately, the increase in pace that the Williams was able to show once it was in clear air opened out enough of a cushion to allow Montoya to slot back into eight place, becoming sixth once those ahead of him made their stops.
This left him chasing Button, who had lost out to Ralf Schumacher on the second round of stops and was dropping back into the clutches of the second Williams. Having sized his Williams predecessor up for a couple of tours, Montoya eventually pounced with a forceful move that saw the BAR take to the grass, but the gap forward to team-mate Schumacher was already looking a tougher obstacle to surmount.
Button's capitulation was due in part to his tyres, and the problem was not necessarily confined to the BAR either. Almost all of the Michelin runners - and particularly the two Williams-BMWs - were showing signs of graining, adding to their woes as the Bridgestone-shod Ferraris pulled ever further away.
With definite gaps having appeared between most of the leading protagonists, there was little in the way of competition in the point-paying positions, although eighth-placed Coulthard was closing on Trulli, while the second BAR-Honda of the Takuma Sato attempted to hunt the Scotsman down.
Missing from the mix by this point was home favourite Webber, who had been halted by a gearbox problem at mid-distance when challenging for points. The Australian, who had cheered the crowd with sixth in qualifying, joined Raikkonen and Minardi's Zsolt Baumgartner on the sidelines when he dropped out, and the trio would later be added to as Gianmaria Bruni, Nick Heidfeld and Felipe Massa all called it a day ahead of schedule.
Heidfeld had been involved in one of the more spirited dices of the race, with added spice thrown in by the fact that the man he was sparring with was the one with which he swapped seats over the winter. Sauber's Giancarlo Fisichella was the first man to make a competitive pit-stop in 2004, and spent the rest of the race attempting to claw back positions. He found a feisty opponent in Heidfeld, however, and it took a spot of wheel-banging to see off the Jordan before it retired with an unrelated problem.
Massa, too, had provide the 121,000 crowd with some excitement, propelling his Sauber ahead of Raikkonen at the start, then regaining a place from the Finn as the McLaren entered its death throes. After that, the Brazilian's ragged press-on style presented the audience with several grass-track moments and the odd spin before a complete electrical failure stranded him on track.
Running with the same Ferrari engine and gearbox as the two leaders, Massa's demise caused the Scuderia to take stock of its advantage. With Barrichello reporting a long brake pedal and Alonso no longer a threat, the team told Schumacher to cool his pace. The German responded by dropping into the 1min 30secs bracket for the last few laps, but still held a massive 14-second advantage as he crossed the line.