David Coulthard made the most of tricky conditions, good calls from his pit-crew and errors by each of his major rivals to add a second Australian Grand Prix victory to his personal haul and head the 2003 F1 championship table.

The Scot, like most of the field, was presented with a conundrum as race time approached, for the Melbourne climate had left the Albert Park track damp after earlier rain and 18 of the 20 drivers with a car not set up for the conditions. Only the Minardi team, which had opted to abort its qualifying laps in exchange for the chance to work on its cars overnight, could opt for wet settings, while the rest of the field merely had to ponder which type of tyre to use.

As it turned out, the field was split on the issue, with some using intermediates and others the grooved tyres usually fitted in fully dry conditions. The track was not entirely devoid of moisture as the warm-up lap started, but was clearly drying with each passing minute, causing engineers and tacticians to scratch their heads as they pondered how tyre choice and the probable need to change would affect the fuel strategies that had to be chosen before qualifying.

Coulthard was among those to opt for more heavily grooved rubber than normal, joining the front row Ferraris, team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, the Saubers - which were also reckoned to be on a light fuel load after 'impressing' in qualifying and others around him in the midfield. On dries, the two Williams-BMWs of Juan Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, Olivier Panis' Toyota and Justin Wilson, who had little to lose starting right from the back, were hoping to make up early ground.

The Briton's Minardi team-mate, Jos Verstappen, was to start from the pit-lane, reliability problems with the second PS03 rearing their head during the installation period. At the end of the warm-up lap, however, it appeared that the Dutchman would be alone, as McLaren pulled Raikkonen from his 15th grid slot to change to 'slicks' and top off his fuel level. The Finn had radioed the pits to say he believed that the surface was good for grooved rubber, and that he had little to lose by opting to drop five places in the starting order.

As the five red lights went out, the two Ferraris were almost level, as Rubens Barrichello found himself unable to prevent his car - still fitted with launch control - from creeping almost a full length out of its starting slot. Still Schumacher made it to the first corner in front, though, while the pack jostled more than usual as their respective tyre choices came into play on the damp main straight.

Fortunately, the conditions did not lead to a repeat of the 2002 first corner incident, although Coulthard appeared to bang wheels with one of the Renaults in the braking zone. At the front, it was the intermediate-shod cars that largely held sway, although both Montoya and Panis made good starts and were able to mix it in the first five. Only as the lap wore on did it become apparent that the dry tyres would need a little time to reach optimum condition, and both Saubers, as well as the two BARs, made early progress. By the end of the first lap of the new - and new-look - season, Schumacher led his team-mate, Nick Heidfeld, Montoya, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jenson Button and Jacques Villeneuve across the line. From fourth, Panis was already back to eleventh - behind both Renaults as well as Coulthard, and only just in front of Wilson, who had made an inspired start to his grand prix career and lay twelfth overall.

By the end of lap two, it was clear that slicks were the way to go and, with a stiff breeze blowing across the circuit, it appeared that they would remain the choice for the rest of the race. Montoya, having been shuffled out of third by Heidfeld, was quick to regain the spot but, by the time he had done so, was already ten seconds adrift of the two Ferraris. Were the red cars going to disappear into the distance, as they had for much of 2002, or was it simply a factor of respective fuel loads and tyre choices?

Aware of the progress Raikkonen was already making through the rear of the field, McLaren opted to pull Coulthard in for slicks and fuel at the end of the second lap, dropping the Scot to the rear, but altering his strategy to let him run deeper into the race before requiring another stop. The move also took DC out of what was fast becoming a merry-go-round in midfield, with places changing every lap and the occasional dicey move being pulled by a car on the right tyres or lighter fuel load.

By lap four, the rest of the field cottoned on to what McLaren had already realised and, with Montoya taking a couple of seconds a lap out of the leaders, an actual race at the front appeared to be on the cards. The pack's cause was then given an extra boost, with news that Barrichello's getaway had, rightly, be adjudged illegal, and would require a drive-thru' penalty that would delay any tyre change for the #2 Ferrari by at least another lap.

The setback, however, never materialised, as Barrichello speared off the track shortly after being given the bad news, bending the left front wheel of his F2002 back under the nose as he made contact with the barriers. Although initial speculation suggested that the Brazilian may have been the victim of oil left on track after a crash-strewn support package, he admitted that his front tyres were already on the way to being shot, leaving him with little chance of overcoming the understeer that sent him onto the grass.

If experience could not counteract Barrichello's problems, rookie Ralph Firman had less chance of saving his Jordan when he went off in exactly the same spot, collecting debris from the Ferrari before also hitting the wall. Unlike the Brazilian, Firman had been running on dry rubber, but was still left to rue a premature end to his debut. Fellow newcomer Cristiano da Matta went little further, spinning out into one of the wide run-off areas after an overtaking move in the midfield left him all crossed up, and the amount of debris lying around the circuit duly prompted the first appearance of the safety car.

By now, the remaining Ferrari had hardly any lead to lose by being artificially slowed up, and Schumacher dived for the pit-lane as the pace car prepared to exit its other end. Montoya inherited the lead but, not for the first time, would see his advantage negated. those that hadn't already stopped for 'slicks' now saw their chance and, with almost all the field now on regular rubber, the order took on a more settled appearance.

With less than ten laps of the new season completed, the race already had its second leader, with Montoya fronting Alonso - who had not stopped - Trulli, Ralf Schumacher, Mark Webber, Raikkonen and the world champion. Coulthard was back to eight after his early pit call, leading Jacques Villeneuve and Panis at the foot of the top ten. When Alonso finally made his first stop, only Verstappen was left to visit the pits, but would not need to do for some time, having benefited from Minardi's ability to make last-minute changes to his car.

Webber lost two positions on the restart but, if that was hard for the loyal home crowd to accept, the Australian's retirement just five laps later was an even bitterer pill to swallow. Also, with the Jaguar driver unable to steer his car off the road after a rear suspension failure led to it crabbing sideways, it was to prove frustrating for Montoya, who again lost an advantage over second-placed Trulli when the pace car re-appeared.

With the field slowed, those cars that hadn't had to stop for 'slicks' took advantage of the situation to call in for more fuel, most of them approaching the limit of their first window after qualifying. Montoya dropped to seventh, his team-mate - who followed the Colombian in and out of the pit box - and Trulli outside the top ten, as Raikkonen, up from the very back, became the third different leader in less than 20 laps.

If the Williams' team's decision to pull both its drivers in together had been rewarded by the gap between them on track, Schumacher Jr's stop was compromised when the left rear refused to seat properly. The German then compounded the problem by spinning on his out-lap and was later lucky to avoid being hit by Heidfeld's Sauber, which pirouetted into the gravel while attempting to out-brake the Williams.

Approaching the halfway mark, just 14 cars remained in the race, which was always likely to be one of attrition. Joining the list of retirements, Wilson sat motionless in the Minardi garage while his mechanics attempted to rectify a problem, but would eventually be forced to call it a day when the apparently repaired car refused to refire.

At the front, Raikkonen had controlled the restart well, but was soon under pressure from Schumacher's Ferrari, the German champing at the bit as he attempted to wrest back top spot. As he had in France midway through his second season, however, the Finn held firm, underlining the fact that Ferrari would not have things all its own way while it persisted with the F2002. The battle also allowed Coulthard to close in, albeit slightly, while the two BARs continued to race in each other in fourth and fifth.

Jacques Villeneuve welcomed his new team-mate to the fold by dismissing his ability and saying that he could not expect respect unless he was able to compete. Button was doing just that, however, until a botched pit call saw both cars appear on pit-lane together. Where Williams had got away with a simultaneous call because of the half lap difference between its two cars, the BAR moment cost Button in the region of 15 seconds as he waited for Villeneuve to be serviced. The team later admitted that the Canadian had misheard the call and pitted a lap too late, taking Button's slot, but it was not a decision likely to engender harmony between the two rivals.

The mid-race period saw much activity in the pits with, first, Schumacher, then Raikkonen needing to make their second stops. Stuck behind the McLaren prior to his call, Ferrari appeared to be giving Schumacher the chance to use a clear track to build up an advantage, but had not counted on Raikkonen's own ability to turn up the wick when it really mattered. When the Finn left the pits after his own stop, Frentzen was momentarily between him and the champion before the status quo was restored, albeit now with Montoya back in front.

If the earlier scrap between Raikkonen and Schumacher had revived memories of Magny-Cours 2002, the next couple of laps were to bring even clearer recollections. This time, however, it was the world champion who came off worst, as an ambitious overtaking move around the outside of turn one saw him forced over the kerb and onto the grass as Raikkonen battled to keep his line.

What neither man knew at the point of near impact, however, was that the Finn had exceeded the pit-lane speed limit by a mere 1.1kph - later attributed to his speed controller - and would be required to join Barrichello and the soon-to-retire Panis - who had earlier crossed the blend line - on the penalty list. Driving through at the end of the next lap, the Finn rejoined just as the two Renaults and Frentzen's Sauber came past, dropping him to seventh before a trip across the grass ensured that he could say goodbye to any hope of a first F1 victory.

Montoya, however, had his sights set on a possible second career win - albeit the first for over a year - as he enjoyed a healthy advantage over Schumacher's Ferrari. The German was not letting up, though, and his press-on pace caused him more than the odd moment, including one across the grass that was enough to damage both barge boards to the point where they eventually detached themselves from the car.

Running with shredded carbon-fibre caught under the sidepods, Schumacher - who had re-assumed the lead on Montoya's second stop - then received the black-and-orange warning flag, necessitating him to repair to the pits. As it turned out, the Scuderia was always intending to bring its leader in for a final splash of fuel, so the problem was negated, but left Schumacher an outsider for the race win.

His stop put Montoya back in control, with both McLarens between Williams and Ferrari, but, less than two laps, later the lead changed hands for the final time, as Montoya lost control exiting turn one and spun through 180 degrees. Although he managed to stop the car without hitting anything solid, the Colombian was powerless to prevent Coulthard from nipping through into the lead.

While the Scot concentrated on not making a mistake of his own, Montoya quickly found his mirrors full of Raikkonen - who, in turn - was being closed down by the world champion. Second to fourth ran almost nose-to-tail to the finish, releasing the pressure on Coulthard and entertaining the crowd, who had braved earlier miserable conditions to be rewarded with a frantic main event.

Behind the top four, a sizeable gap endured before Trulli came into view, helping to sandwich the persistent Frentzen between two slices of Renault. Team-mate Alonso, on course to score his first world championship points, was almost a second ahead of the eight-placed Ralf Schumacher, who would eventually overcome his weekend's tribulations to be come the final scorer in the first race to feature the altered points system.

A further twenty seconds back, Button came close to avenging the mix-up at BAR by closing down the gap to his team-mate and chasing him across the line. In retrospect, however, the Brackley squad would rue not only the pit farrago, but also its choice of tyres and three-stop strategy, as almost certain points went begging.

Jos Verstappen completed the list of finishers, bringing the sole remaining Minardi home in eleventh spot, despite starting and suffering problems in pit-lane. Giancarlo Fisichella and Antonio Pizzonia were both also classified, despite retiring six laps from home.

In terms of excitement, the Australian Grand Prix provided a welcome entree to the 2003 championship, complete with its new and often controversial rules. McLaren's Ron Dennis has been among the most outspoken critic of the changes - albeit moreso for the way in which they were introduced - but was able to celebrate the first victory under their regime as Coulthard crossed the line alone on pit straight, punching the air in front of his mechanics before the train comprising Montoya, Raikkonen and Schumacher appeared in close formation.