Michael Schumacher extended his Formula One winning streak to five races with a confident and comfortable victory in the season opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, but his triumph was again to be clouded by tragedy.

The German, having won the final four races of last season en route to the world title, dominated the Melbourne race from start to finish, only losing the lead during the single round of pit-stops, when McLaren's David Coulthard took over at the front of the field. The Scot could not muster sufficient pace to build an advantage over the Ferrari, however, and had to settle for second place in both race and championship standings.

Schumacher, starting from pole position on the Albert Park circuit, made an uncharacteristically good getaway to lead the field into turn one, while Ferrari team-mate and fellow front row starter Rubens Barrichello did just the opposite. This allowed Schumacher's likely title rival, Mika Hakkinen, to slot into second place, with Heinz-Harald Frentzen getting around Barrichello to assume third. Coulthard, starting sixth after a poor qualifying session, lost further ground as the lights went out, dropping behind Jarno Trulli's Jordan into seventh.

While Schumacher and Hakkinen drew away at the front of the pack, Barrichello wasted little time in attempting to reclaim lost ground. Passing Ralf Schumacher's Williams as early as lap two, the Brazilian was then right with Frentzen as they began the third tour. He was not quite close enough to try an attempted pass at turn three, however, and the two cars touched, sending Frentzen spinning down the order while Barrichello, remarkably, continued unabated.

Further back, Schumacher Jr had fallen into the clutches of Jacques Villeneuve as a result of the mistake that allowed Barrichello through, and the Canadian was quickly looking to make up places in search of BAR's maiden podium. Schumacher defended strongly, taking the middle ground at every opportunity, before the two clashed in the biggest accident of the day.

Unsure of which side of the Williams the gap to pass would appear, Villeneuve was still in two minds when Schumacher braked for turn three, sending the BAR up and over his left rear wheel. Such was Villeneuve's speed at the time of impact that the flat bottom of his car was caught by the air and thrown into the retaining wall on the left hand side of the circuit. Striking the blend of concrete and mesh fencing at unabated speed while off the ground, Villeneuve then endured a rollercoaster ride into the gravel trap, where he was, thankfully, able to climb unaided from the wrecked BAR.

''Ralf was in the middle of the road, and I didn't know which side he let me pass,'' the Canadian admitted afterwards, ''I was still looking inside and outside when he braked.''

Schumacher joined his assailant in the gravel trap, the Williams now minus its rear wing, but was also unharmed. The same could not be said for an innocent bystander, who required medical treatment and prolonged the safety car period called for in order to remove a substantial amount of debris from the circuit.

Eleven laps passed under yellows while the injured were treated and then removed to hospital, causing the teams to reach for their calculators in order to rework fuel mileages and pit-stop strategies. Already without need for such mathematics were rookie Enrique Bernoldi, and early victim of mechanical failure, returnee Tarso Marques and Argentine Gaston Mazzacane, all of whom preceded Schumacher and Villeneuve onto the retirement list.

The race finally restarted on lap 16, one tour after Jos Verstappen pitted for a tactical fuel stop, but brought little good fortune for last season's rookie sensation Jenson Button. Even before the red lights had gone out, the Briton's number had appeared on race computers under notice of possible penalty and, as the Mercedes safety car peeled off, Button was duly called in for a ten-second stop-go punishment, allegedly for taking the spare Benetton out for a sighting lap while his race car sat on the grid.

The go-slow period had allowed those previously trailing in the leaders' wake to close back in, with Barrichello and Coulthard now assuming third and fourth places respectively and back in with a chance of good points. Trulli inherited team-mate Frentzen's top six place for Jordan, ahead of Honda-powered rival Olivier Panis, making his return to competition with BAR, while rookie Juan Montoya recovered from a first corner off - the result of an optimistic dive for places - to lie eighth behind Nick Heidfeld.

Everyone moved up a position less than ten laps later, when the sight of Hakkinen's crumpled McLaren heralded the demise - for the third straight year - of the Finn's Melbourne hopes. This was no internal failure, as previous years had been, however, for the McLaren was in a bad way, the victim of a suspected breakage at the rear that had removed the rear wing heading into a fast right. Hakkinen had left the track backwards, having already been spun round well before the turn-in point, and the impact with the barrier was enough to leave the Finn more than a little concussed.

It also left Schumacher with an increased advantage over team-mate Barrichello, who had Coulthard moving ever closer to the rear of the Ferrari. The crowd then thought that the leader may be on his way out, as he ducked closer to the pit-wall and began signalling to his assembled engineers in a manner reminiscent of someone with a problem. It proved to be a false alarm, however, as Schumacher quickly picked up the pace, able to set fastest laps at will as Ferrari's fabled reliability continued throughout.

Indeed, the next to hit problems was Trulli, his promising weekend at the wheel of the Jordan-Honda quickly scuppered by a mechanical problem which left him open to attack, first from Panis, then, in quick succession, from Heidfeld and Montoya. The Italian's demise, as well as dropping him out of the points, also moved some unlikely names closer to the top six, led by the impressive Kimi Raikkonen.

While half of the race's rookie population did not make the best of starts to the season, the young Finn, in company with Montoya and Minardi's Fernando Alonso set about reassuring insiders that the future of the category was safe. As early as the opening lap, Raikkonen was diving down the inside of rivals like a seasoned pro - or perhaps belying his inexperience by believing that passing was possible in F1! In and around the top ten for almost the entire race, the FRenault graduate would go on to just miss an unlapped debut point by the chequered flag.

Alonso, too, was impressing, despite having to run further down the field courtesy of his underpowered Minardi. The 19-year old Spaniard kept his nose clean in the early skirmishes, and led those - like Eddie Irvine - who didn't with aplomb. Still motoring at the finish, Alonso took twelfth place, just two laps adrift of the race winner.

Back at the sharp end, Schumacher continued his cruise while the rest of the top six began to shake itself up. First to succumb was the second Ferrari of Barrichello, which appeared to contract some power-sapping ailment that allowed Coulthard to home in and pass around the outside of turn three shortly before the pit-stop window opened. Once through, the Scot made short work of dropping his rival, setting off in an ultimately fruitless pursuit of the leader.

His persistence was rewarded by a brief spell at the head of the field when Schumacher became one of the first to stop - on lap 37 - for new fuel and tyres. The German dropped to third after a 10.7secs stationery stop, but had already built enough of an advantage to ensure that he would be back in front when Coulthard called in.

Sure enough, the Scot was forced to watch as the Ferrari resumed normal service when he made his own stop four laps later, despite taking less time and having to undergo a brief inspection to confirm there would be no repeat of Hakkinen's failure on his MP4-16.

When the remaining runners had allowed the order to shake itself out, Schumacher held a comfortable enough lead that he could afford to pace himself according to Coulthard, allowing the Scot to close in towards the end without ever looking likely to cede the ten points.

Further back, Panis was getting no closer to BAR's first top three finish, despite Barrichello's problems, but remained untroubled by those behind as Heidfeld fell into the clutches of a recovering Frentzen. A Teuton battle ensued for the final nine laps, as Jordan hounded Sauber, but Heidfeld belied his inexperience by holding firm to the flag and opening his F1 account with two hard earned points.

The closing stages saw the passing of two of the most watched names of the new season, as both Montoya and Button fell by the wayside, leaving 13 finishers from the 22 cars which had started the race.

At the front, it was business as usual for Michael Schumacher but, as in Italy last year, the German had to contend with bad news as the podium celebrations were about to get underway. As at Monza, the trophy ceremony was cut short by the tragic report that a corner worker had died as a result of the incident involving the winner's younger brother on lap five, casting a shadow over another otherwise perfect event.

Race Result:

1. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 58 laps 1hr 38mins 26.533secs 187.465kph
2. David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes +01.717secs
3. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari +33.491secs
4. Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas +1min 11.479secs
5. Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Jordan-Honda +1min 12.807secs

6. Kimi Raikkonen Finland Sauber-Petronas +1min 24.143secs
7 (4) Olivier Panis ** France BAR-Honda +1min 02.050secs
8. Luciano Burti Brazil Jaguar-Cosworth +1 lap
9. Jean Alesi France Prost-Acer +1 lap
10 (9) Jos Verstappen ** Holland Arrows-Asiatech +1 lap
11. Eddie Irvine Britain Jaguar-Cosworth +1 lap
12. Fernando Alonso Spain Minardi-European +2 laps
13. Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Benetton-Renault +3 laps

Rtd Jenson Button Britain Benetton-Renault 52 laps completed
Rtd Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW 40 laps completed
Rtd Jarno Trulli Italy Jordan-Honda 38 laps completed
Rtd Mika Hakkinen Finland McLaren-Mercedes 25 laps completed
Rtd Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW 4 laps completed
Rtd Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Honda 4 laps completed
Rtd Tarso Marques Brazil Minardi-European 3 laps completed
Rtd Enrique Bernoldi Brazil Arrows-Asiatech 2 laps completed
Rtd Gaston Mazzacane Argentina Prost-Acer 0 laps completed

Fastest lap: Michael Schumacher Ferrari-Ferrari 1min 26.650secs

** Revised finishing order following post-race penalties handed to Olivier Panis (BAR) and Jos Verstappen (Arrows).


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