Giancarlo Fisichella may have been fortunate to take pole position for the Australian Grand Prix, but he made no mistake in a flawless race performance to double his F1 victory tally with a lights-to-flag success in Melbourne.

Not needing Renault's legendary launch system to carry him into an early lead, the Italian eased away from compatriot Jarno Trulli over the opening half-dozen laps, establishing a cushion that served him well over the rest of the afternoon. Trulli proved to be the only driver able to live with the R25 in the opening stages, after a first lap reshuffle saw David Coulthard and Mark Webber lose time as they continued to duel and various slower cars propelled up the order in a topsy-turvy qualifying gradually become rolling roadblocks for faster machinery behind.

A string of fastest laps - although not new records owing to the winter rule changes - saw Fisichella ease away from his pursuers, all of whom, Felipe Massa excepted, opted for the same two-stop strategy as the pole man. Renault had shown its pace in testing, but no-one quite expected Fisichella to control the race in quite the fashion he did.

The Italian's task was eased, of course, by the fact that much of the expected opposition was mired down the order after being caught out by the conditions in Saturday qualifying. Although the second session, held on race morning, would usually offer a chance for redress, the margins were so great that only a few managed to claw back vital positions. It was then left up to the first lap skirmishing to establish the running order, but the likes of Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Montoya never made up enough ground to be serious threats.

The world champion made his job harder by opting for a between sessions engine change that ensured he would start from the back row, while Raikkonen's fractious weekend got worse when he stalled on the grid and had to start from pit-lane. The Finn turned in a blinding opening lap to be sitting directly behind Schumacher at its end, but the pair were only 15th and 16th, and bottled up behind Takuma Sato and the one-stopping Felipe Massa.

Montoya made a better fist of it, bolting from ninth on the grid to seventh at the start, but then found himself on the tail of a train that stretched as far as third. The man driving the train was none other than that who JPM replaced at Woking, for David Coulthard had made a good getaway to usurp Jacques Villeneuve - who moved the opposite way down the field - and dived inside local hero Mark Webber at turn four to claim third. Webber gave valiant chase, while Williams team-mate Nick Heidfeld moved up to fifth after his own good start.

Villeneuve was among the biggest losers on lap one, dropping to ninth, while former BAR team-mate Jenson Button also lost vital ground as he dropped back to eleventh. Benefiting from the Briton's misfortune was the second Renault of Fernando Alonso and Rubens Barrichello, who sensed a rare early season opportunity to be best Ferrari. Both would play a central role.

The Italian axis at the front of the field lasted until Trulli became the first to stop for fuel under the new rules that prevented tyre changes also taking place. That did not stop the Toyota team - and others after them - still fielding as many men around the car as before and, frankly, it looked a little incongruous. Trulli's stop prompted a chain reaction down the field but, with Fisichella not requiring a top-up for a further five laps, did little to prevent his fellow Italian from extending his advantage.

The action, as has become the norm over the past twelve months, was taking place deeper in the field, with Alonso passing Villeneuve at Ascari, before being repassed at the next turn by the still feisty Canadian. The battle continued to rage for sometime, until the charging Spaniard repeated the move and made it stick ten laps later. Once free of the Sauber, Alonso began to make the second Renault fly, trading fastest laps with the frontrunners and making a solid points finish look possible.

Two of those frontrunners had already been involved in a brush of their own, with Coulthard being caught out by a hard-braking Minardi and clipping the back of the black-and-white backmarker, to the detriment of his nose. The damage was never enough to halt the Red Bull car, but it did allow Webber to see a chink in its defences. The Australian was quick to pounce, moving to the inside of the next corner, only to find Coulthard resisting to the end. The result was one Williams on the grass, and DC holding on to third spot.

The first round of pit-stops quelled some of the arguments, but firmly elevated both Alonso and Barrichello into the frame for podium finishes. The Brazilian inherited the lead when Fisichella stopped, but quickly handed it back under similar circumstances. Among the biggest losers, ironically, was Trulli, who found himself passed by both Coulthard and Webber - as well as Barrichello and Alonso - beginning a slow slide backwards - and out of the points - for a man who had been delighted to give Toyota its highest ever grid placing just hours before.

As the order settled down, with everyone having made a stop by half-distance, Fisichella remained in charge to the tune of twelve seconds, his smooth style hardly taxing his soft Michelin rubber. Coulthard and Webber both moved up a place courtesy of Trulli's backward motion, with Barrichello into fourth, ahead of Montoya, the Toyota, Alonso and the quietly impressive Christian Klien, who had been in the train headed by his team-mate early on and was now resisting Heidfeld, who had also slipped backwards during the stops.

Raikkonen and Schumacher, now running in that order, had made slow progress to tenth and eleventh, but were not benefiting from the expected attrition rate that usually accompanies races in Melbourne. Indeed, by half-distance, only the luckless Christijan Albers had called it a day, the Minardi appearing to suffer a recurrence of the transmission trouble that had thwarted his second qualifying run. Raikkonen's McLaren, as well as failing to exhibit the sort of pace it had shown in testing, was also sporting bodywork damage, allowing Schumacher to close the gap between them.

The two pre-season title favourites remained in situ to their respective second stops, but the removal of the offending part saw Raikkonen lose his slim advantage over Schumacher when they rejoined. The Finn, however, needn't have worried for the world champion was about to take himself out of contention.

His stop had also taken ahead of Heidfeld's Williams but the younger German was clearly the faster and had closed sufficiently by lap 44 to warrant a look down the inside into turn four. Schumacher, however, was in no mood to be passed and, in typical uncompromising style, eased his countryman onto the grass. Devoid of braking capacity on the slick vegetation, Heidfeld then slithered into the side of the Ferrari as it turned into the corner, pushing both cars onto the opposite verge.

While the Williams driver was resigned to climbing out of his stricken machine, Schumacher attempted to convince the local marshals that he was stationed in a dangerous position and required a push. Initially rejecting the sort of exhortation that had the Nurburgring marshals running to his aid a couple of years ago, the Australians eventually succumbed to Schumacher's pleas. The next few turns, however, convinced the champion that all was not well and, twelve months after trouncing the field, he reluctantly parked up back in the Ferrari pit.

His arrival coincided with team-mate Barrichello's exit from his second stop, the Brazilian handing the overall advantage, acquired when Fisichella had stopped a lap earlier, to Alonso. These three were now the only ones likely to fill the podium, as the inexorable progress being made by both the second Ferrari and its Spanish pursuer had taken them past the still squabbling Coulthard and Webber during the pit-stops.

Alonso was still charging too, but pushed a little too hard on one occasion, putting a wheel in the dirt and extending his task by vital tenths. The gap at the flag remained slightly over a second, larger than that between Coulthard and Webber, and double that between Klien and Raikkonen in the scrap for the final points. Between the two Red Bull-led battles, Montoya too was struggling to get round the corners, but finished otherwise untroubled in sixth.

A year ago, one team and its British driver took its first points in what would turn out to be their best respective seasons since joining F1 a year apart. This time, however, neither BAR or Jenson Button was a factor. From his poor start to being bottled up behind former colleague Villeneuve in the closing stages, the Briton was unable to make his mark, and would have been credited with a lowly eleventh place on the road had he actually taken the chequered flag. Instead, being a lap ahead of nearest challenger Ralf Schumacher, the team decided to play the rulebook to its advantage, calling Button - and 14th-placed team-mate Takuma Sato - into the pits on the last lap. By officially 'retiring' on the last lap, it will now be able to turn up in Malaysia with a fresh engine in each car, rather than having to hope that its Melbourne V10s will last the nominated second distance.

Fisichella, meanwhile, will turn up in Malaysia leading the world championship for the first time in his lengthy F1 career. On Saturday, the Italian openly admitted that he was the luckiest man in Melbourne for having narrowly missed the rainstorm that dictated the grid; on Sunday, most of his rivals were beginning to think that he may have lucked into the best car on the grid.



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