Coulthard wins pulsating opener

David Coulthard won a cracking season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne today (Sunday), benefiting from an unlikely sequence of events that allowed the race to fall into the Scot's lap. Juan Pablo Montoya had been on course to win, but inexplicably spun off and dropped to second, while Michael Schumacher's race was compromised when he went off and damaged his car. He finished fourth - the first time a Ferrari has failed to feature on the podium since 1999

Coulthard wins pulsating opener

The race was packed with drama from the start, at which half the field were on wet tyres and half on dry - after a pre-event rain shower. Front row man Rubens Barrichello jumped the start, but before he could take the penalty he crashed heavily at Turn Five, just a few laps in and was out of the race.

"My tyres were really in trouble," he said. "I knew I had the drive through penalty, but I pushed a bit too hard and got understeer, which it wasn't coming back from. I did all I could to brake, but I lost out."

His pole-sitting Ferrari team-mate Michael Schumacher led from the off on his wet Bridgestone tyres and held a 12.0s lead over Williams' star Montoya, who was on dry Michelin tyres. Juan Pablo had fallen back to fourth, initially, before he could generate sufficient heat in his rubber. As the track quickly dried, Montoya carved into Schumacher's lead, sending the Ferrari ace into the pits for dry tyres.

The safety car was called upon on lap nine after Jordan rookie Ralph Firman smacked the same tyrewall that had claimed Barrichello. Toyota's Cristiano da Matta spun into the gravel while attempting to pass Jaguar's Mark Webber and Schumacher in one move.

The order at the time was Montoya leading from the Renaults of Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli (who both started on dry tyres) ahead of Ralf Schumacher, Webber and Raikkonen (who had pitted on the warm-up lap for fuel and dry tyres!). Alonso then pitted, dropping to the back of the queue, while Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher picked Webber off for fourth at the restart.

The safety car was out again a few laps later, as Webber's impressive run came to an end with right rear suspension failure, and the local hero was forced to bail out of his crippled car on the edge of the racing line. Leader Montoya opted to pit, where he was joined, quite literally, by team-mate Ralf Schumacher. The latter's annoyance was compounded when he spun at Turn One a second later, trying to hold off Alonso who also went off briefly.

Yet more misfortune befell Ralf when he happened upon Heidfeld's wayward Sauber (the front wheels pointing in opposing directions), at the fastest corner on the circuit, and he was forced to make a trip through the gravel. It never rains...

Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher were now fighting over the lead, until Schuey made an earlier than expected second stop on lap 28. Raikkonen pitted five tours later, and rejoined ahead of Schumacher, but was pinged for speeding in the pits by just 1kph over the limit. The resultant drive through dropped him to sixth, and appeared to have lost him all hope of a podium, nevermind the win.

Before he made his stop, however, the Finn displayed his hard side when he muscled Schumacher on to the grass at Turn One when the German appeared to have the position in his pocket. Whether that caused the damage to Schumacher's car, or a later trip through the fringe of the gravel at the super-fast Waite chicane, Michael's F2002 began to shed its bargeboards like a clown's car falling to pieces. The left-side one fell off first, soon followed by the right one. He was shown the black and orange flag, but by the time of his third and final pit stop the rogue items were no longer a danger.

Leader Montoya, unaware of the drama occurring behind, relinquished his lead to Schumacher with 18 laps to go when he made his final fuel stop. But with Schumacher diving in for a splash-n-dash three laps later, Montoya was back in front and seemingly heading for his first win in two years.

Amazingly, Montoya ran wide at the infamous Turn One, got on the kerbs and spun into the tyrewall with just 10 laps to go. That handed the win to Coulthard, who had started 11th on the grid and pitted as early as lap two, but he simply steered clear of the chaos that unfolded around him.

Montoya rejoined just ahead of Raikkonen, who survived a trip through the gravel after his drive through penalty - which probably cost him second place - and Schumacher. The trio ended the race covered by just fractions of the second, but 8.0s behind a jubilant Coulthard.

Trulli finished fifth for Renault, ahead of a great scrap between Sauber's Heinz-Harald Frentzen (who started fourth), Alonso and the unfortunate Ralf Schumacher. The points scorers were chased home by the BARs of Jacques Villeneuve and Jenson Button, which had run as high fourth and fifth just before half distance until both pitted simultaneously. Jos Verstappen, who started from the pits in his Minardi, was the final finisher after Giancarlo Fisichella (Jordan) and Antonio Pizzonia (Jaguar) broke down in the closing stages.

Rounding off a dreadful debut for the rookies, Justin Wilson failed to make the finish in his Minardi, but at least starred on the opening lap when he went from last on the grid to an incredible ninth by lap two. Olivier Panis had looked on course for some decent points, but his Toyota failed him just after he took a drive through penalty for crossing the pit exit line.

All in all, a terrific race but one that owed more to the mistakes made rather than the brave new world of the updated rulebook.

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Coulthard Wins; No Ferrari on Podium in Australia

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