Ralf Schumacher inherited victory in a German Grand Prix at Hockenheim which became a race of attrition as his opposition, including World Championship protagonists Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard, dropped out like flies around him.
The German scored his third victory of the season with a measured drive, but he couldn't hold a candle to his pole sitting team mate Juan Pablo Montoya, who streaked away in the lead of the restarted race.
The initial start was red flagged when Michael Schumacher's Ferrari hit gearbox problems at the start and his disabled machine was struck from behind at high-speed by Luciano Burti's Prost. The Brazilian backflipped on to the top of Enrique Bernoldi's Arrows before returning back to its wheels and slamming into the first corner tyrewall.
Amazingly, Burti was completely unharmed and both he and Schumacher took the restart, which was necessary due to the huge amount of debris that was strewn on the track.
Montoya led until his single scheduled pit stop on lap 21, where his fuel hose refused to release any of its contents, forcing the Williams team to swap to the spare rig which cost him over 30secs. He rejoined in third but his BMW engine let go in the Stadium section on lap 25. The Colombian waved to the crowd as he alighted from his car but stomped out of the circuit without talking to any journalists.
That allowed Schumacher R to cruise to victory by 46secs to add to his wins in Imola and Canada.
"It's a great feeling," he said. "I've always had bad luck here, but this is great. Before the weekend I knew we were going to be a bit on the tight side with the engine. When I saw Juan Pablo pull away I thought 'do what you want'. I was saving the engine even then. When he went out the team told me to slow down even more."
Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello, last year's German GP winner, was now his closest rival but his two-stop strategy was always going to give Ralf even more breathing space - not that he or the Williams-BMW team needed it. Barrichello also encountered a few fuel flow problems in his second pit stop, but finished well clear of Jacques Villeneuve's BAR.
"I thought it was only going to be a third, so second was a bonus," said Barrichello. "This was everything I could hope for."
One of the highlights of the race was Barrichello's battle with Coulthard after the Brazilian's first pit stop. After a couple of near misses, Barrichello gained the position with a stunning pass on the outside of the Scot at the high-speed Agip kurve on the entry to the Stadium on lap 19.
"We know each other from F3," said the Brazilian. "We respect each other. In a way he was one up on me after Silverstone last year [where the Scot passed him in similar circumstances at Stowe]."
British GP winner Mika Hakkinen was the first of the front runners to fall by the wayside, as left-side radiator of his McLaren spewed its contents on to the track on lap 15.
"It was very disappointing, we were going well," said Hakkinen. "I was very confident of a good result - maybe third or second. There was a lot of smoke, the engine died and I lost drive."
McLaren's day was soon cheered when Michael Schumacher's Ferrari ground silently to a halt on the exit of the first chicane immediately after his pit stop on lap 23.
"It would have been nice to score six points today," said Schumacher. "This is a another step towards the championship but we'll have to wait a bit longer."
But the Woking team's day turned sour once again soon after, as Coulthard also stuttered as he left the pits and he pulled off as he exited the pits on lap 27. He was lying third at the time, but lost the chance to close the gap to Schumacher in the title race.
"I'm very disappointed," he said. "I wasn't particularly quick in the race and had enough oversteer for the rest of the grid. I was doing my best to keep it on the island. We just weren't on the pace and the balance of the car was somewhere else."
All the attrition gave Villeneuve a surprise podium, despite the fact he started only 12th on the grid. He was being closed on in the latter stages by Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton who, along with fifth placed Jenson Button, was proving the effectiveness of the Renault-powered B201 at the high-speed German venue.
Villeneuve said: "I though we'd be lucky to get points, so I'm surprised at being on the podium."
Fisichella blew his chances of a podium finish when he understeered into the gravel at the Sachskurve on the penultimate lap, which dropped him into the clutches of Button and a charging Jean Alesi (Prost). The latter could have driven his last race for the French team as paddock rumour is linking him to a switch to Jordan.
A two-stopping Olivier Panis took seventh in his BAR, ahead of the battling Arrows-Asiatechs of Enrique Bernoldi and Jos Verstappen, which took the flag with just 0.3secs separating them. Fernando Alonso brought the spare Minardi home in tenth place after his original machine caught fire on the dummy grid.
Only 10 of the 22 cars made it to the end, with reliability stretched to the limit due to high temperatures and the large stresses placed on machinery as a result of the high-speed nature of the circuit.
Both Jaguars went out, with Pedro de la Rosa harpooning Nick Heidfeld's Sauber at the first chicane on the opening lap and Eddie Irvine retiring with a misfire. Neither Jordan finished either, as Ricardo Zonta lost his front wing against Verstappen on lap six and Trulli went out in the closing stages with a hydraulic failure.
Just 50 World Championship points are now up for grabs, and Michael Schumacher can seal his fourth title at Hungary on August 19.
For full race results, click here.
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