AN OIL slick, a cloudburst and a pit stop from hell ultimately meant nothing to Michael Schumacher here yesterday. Despite tribulations that would have spelled the end for most other teams' hopes, Ferrari recovered in remarkable style and the German's sixth consecutive victory, the 46th of his career, left rivals open-mouthed as he exploited the extraordinary abilities of his red racer to win as he pleased.
When Schumacher went straight into the lead of this dramatic race, it seemed like business as usual. But his team-mate Rubens Barrichello triggered mayhem in his wake after pushing Schumacher's younger brother Ralf into a spin that scattered the field. Jarno Trulli and David Coulthard benefited to slip into third and fourth places, but Mika Hakkinen was delayed badly.
This was soon to be rendered academic, however, as a chain of events unfolded. First it began to rain gently on the second lap. Then Olivier Panis's BAR-Honda spun into a gravel trap, trailing a sheet of flame as the legacy of leaking oil igniting on hot exhausts. On the following lap both Ferraris were the first to discover the slick left by Panis, and Schumacher and Barrichello slithered off track and fell to seventh and third respectively. Then came the cloudburst on the fourth lap, which sent cars spinning everywhere. The new leader, Trulli, rotated off the road, followed by Coulthard, Jacques Villeneuve, Barrichello (again) and Juan Pablo Montoya, who had already been obliged to switch to his spare BMW Williams after his original car over-heated on the grid.
The downpour prompted a rash of pit stops as drivers switched to wet weather tyres. Coulthard was now the leader, with Jos Verstappen, who blasted from 18th on the grid to sixth place on the opening lap, starring briefly in second place for Orange Arrows. But Ferrari's stop had been a disaster.
Barrichello had arrived first in the pits, where a pantomime ensued. The mechanics fitted three of the intermediate tyres intended for Schumacher, then went looking for a fourth. As Barrichello sat stationary for an agonising 72 seconds, Schumacher was obliged to wait behind for his own turn.
After a while his patience ran out, and he began signalling angrily for some attention. By the time his own tyres had been changed in a mere eight seconds, he was 72sec behind Coulthard.
That could have been the end of Ferrari's challenge, but the safety car played nicely into their hands. The longer it stayed out as cars that had spun off terminally were moved to places of safety, the more Barrichello and Schumacher closed up on the leaders. By the time the safety car finally pulled into the pits at the end of the 10th lap, the awful pit stop might never have happened. It was Ferrari's lucky day.
Schumacher lost little time slicing to the front. In four laps he moved from 11th to third, the manner in which he resolutely overtook his team- mate on the 12th lap leaving the Brazilian less than impressed.
Verstappen was one of the few drivers able to resist, but even he did not last long. Once the Ferrari moved into second place, it was only a matter of time before Coulthard surrendered his lead. Schumacher's intermediate tyres clearly conferred a significant advantage, allied to the Ferrari's remarkable traction, and when he loomed in Coulthard's mirrors on the 16th lap the game was up.
By the 17th lap the Ferraris were first and second, and they stayed that way to the end. Their ability to take any line on the slippery track, and to run rings round their opposition, left rivals incredulous.
"That was a very exciting race," Schumacher declared in the aftermath of victory. "When I went off I could see the barrier coming and I thought it was over. I was lucky.
"During the pit stop I was asking them to push Rubens forward because I could see he had no right front wheel. It was a bad moment. We knew it would be a while before the advantage of the intermediate tyres would help us as the track dried, but though the car was initially difficult to drive it got better as the race progressed."
Coulthard salvaged something from an unusually bleak weekend for McLaren, while Heinz-Harald Frentzen blessed the clutch problem that had forced Giancarlo Fisichella to creep forwards on the grid and cause the original start to be red-flagged. Frentzen's Jordan-Honda rev limiter had accidentally been set to only 4000rpm, as he discovered on the first formation lap.
With it readjusted he was able to fight up to fourth place in the restarted race, after a great battle with Verstappen, a recovered Ralf Schumacher and Hakkinen. A brilliant drive netted the German three more points, after he had maintained his speed while nursing a dwindling fuel load in the closing laps.
Verstappen ultimately missed the last point as his refuelling stops dropped him back, but few will forget the sight of an Arrows leading the McLaren of the former champion Hakkinen.
The decision to run the silver cars on full wet tyres before the track dried out undoubtedly cost the team dearly. Though Hakkinen ultimately set the fastest lap and scored his first point of the season, it looked very lonely compared with the 20 Schumacher had bagged in two races. There is a long way to go to the final race in Suzuka in October, but on their current form Ferrari already look unstoppable.
1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari
55 laps, 1hr 47min 34.801sec (ave speed 105.67mph)
2 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari
55 laps, +23.660sec
3 D Coulthard (GB)
4 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Honda
5 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW
6 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes
7 Jos Verstappen (Neth) Arrows-Asiatech, 55 laps
8 J Trulli (It) Jordan-Honda, 54
9 J Alesi (Fr) Prost-Acer, 54
10 L Burti (Bra) Jaguar, 54
11 J Button (GB) Benetton-Renault, 53
12 G Mazzacane (Arg) Prost-Acer, 52
13 F Alonso (Sp) Minardi-European, 52
14 T Marques (Bra) Minardi-European, 51.
Did not finish
15 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Renault, 31
16 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda, 3
17 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas, 3
18 E Bernoldi (Bra) Arrows-Asiatech, 3
19 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW, 3
20 E Irvine (G) Jaguar, 3
21 O Panis (Fr) BAR-Honda, 1
22 K Raikkonen (Fin) Sauber-Petronas, 0
Fastest lap: Hakkinen, lap 48, 1min 40.962sec 122.83mph.
1 M Schumacher 20pts
2= Coulthard, Barrichello 10
4 Frentzen 5
5 Heidfeld 3
6 R Schumacher 2
7= Raikkonen, Hakkinen 1
1 Ferrari 30pts
2 McLaren-Mercedes 11
3 Jordan-Honda 5
4 Sauber-Petronas 4
5 Williams-BMW 2