GP report: Marshal's death overshadows Schuey

Reigning world champion Michael Schumacher opened his account for 2001 with a dominant victory in an Australian Grand Prix which he led from start to finish. The race however, was completely oversahdowed by tragedy when a massive accident involving Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher early in the race left the Canadian unhurt but resulted in the death of a marshal (Click here for separate story)

The McLaren-Mercedes of David Coulthard prevented a Ferrari whitewash by finishing a strong second to Schumacher, ahead of Maranello number two Rubens Barrichello.

Schumacher took full advantage of the extra rubber on his side of the track and bolted from pole position at the start to comfortably take the lead into the first corner, followed by Mika Hakkinen's McLaren, brother Ralf's Williams, Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan, Barrichello and Coulthard.

After a blinding start from the junior Schumacher, the Williams driver quickly dropped back and by lap six was running ahead of seventh-placed Villeneuve. On the 180mph-approach to the third corner, the Canadian jinked left, then right before hitting the back of the Williams and being launched into the barriers, finally coming to rest, completely destroyed bar its carbon fibre chassis, more than 100 metres further down the track.

"I just braked and all of a sudden I got a big knock from the back," said Schumacher. "Jacques didn't realise what I was going to do and crashed into me. It was his mistake, but it can happen."

Despite the constant efforts to maintain and even increase safety levels, the accident has given Formula 1 an immediate reminder of the dangers involved, - and only a handful of laps into the 2001 season.

"I'm okay," said Villeneuve immediately after the incident, but before he knew of the marshal's death. "Ralf was in the middle of the track, and I wasn't sure whether to try and overtake him on the inside or the outside. When I went for the outside, that's when he went on the brakes. I had no choice but to run into him."

It is believed that the marshal was killed by an errant wheel from Villeneuve's BAR, similar to the accident that claimed Paolo Ghislimberti's life at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza last year.

"It is a very, very dangerous sport," said BAR team boss Craig Pollock. "The tyre did come off the car, but it is impossible to draw conclusions at this stage without the proper facts. The whole thing is just very, very sad."

The cars proceeded behind the pace car for eight laps after the incident and Schumacher comfortably held his lead as the green flag was waved to signal the restart.

Hakkinen managed to match the world champ for pace and succeeded in holding the gap at a respectable three seconds. The chances of reeling in the Ferrari, however, became increasingly remote and then vanished altogether on lap 27 when the Finn's front right suspension broke, spectacularly putting Hakkinen into the tyre wall at turn 13 and onto the Australian GP retirement list for the third consecutive year.

As the struggle for supremacy between the Honda-powered teams of BAR and Jordan kicked off, it was one-nil to BAR - but Jordan received extra credit for effort. In spite of Villeneuve's tragic accident, team mate Olivier Panis scored a strong fourth place to take three points for the Brackley-based team.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen would likely have placed much higher than where he finished in fifth place. The German was running third when Barrichello tried a very optimistic move on the entry to the third corner and the number two Ferrari pitched the Jordan into a spin, leaving Frentzen in the gravel trap.

The three-time race winner rejoined in 16th place and fought stoically back to finish sixth, just over a second behind a resilient Nick Heidfeld who, despite continued pressure from his fellow countryman, held on to take fifth place and two points for the Swiss-based Sauber team. The second half of Sauber's junior driver pairing, Kimi Raikkonen, came home an impressive seventh, giving early justification to team boss Peter Sauber's gamble on youth.

Jaguar new boy Luciano Burti finished a creditable eighth, while team mate Eddie Irvine struggled home in 11th with a fuel pressure problem.

Jos Verstappen proved the reliability of the latest Arrows challenger and finished ninth, while Jean Alesi rounded out the top 10 in his much improved Ferrari-powered Prost.

Jenson Button's first weekend with Benetton went from bad to worse and he retired just two laps before the chequered flag. After struggling for pace during qualifying, the young Brit was given a 10-second stop-and-go penalty for switching to the spare car before the start while his race car was still on the grid.

Meanwhile, the man who filled Button's shoes at Williams for the new season fared well in his maiden Grand Prix and had muscled his way up third place when his BMW V10 spectacularly expired in a cloud of smoke.

McLaren will be keen to put an early stop to Schumacher's winning ways. The German has made a perfect start to his season as defending champion and today's (Sunday's) win marks the fifth consecutive race in which the triple world champ has finished on the top step. However, the tragic circumstances of the race are far more important than the win itself.

Coulthard captured the mood of a sad Albert Park by saying: "The over-riding story is the fatality of the marshal. All our thoughts go to his family. We have to ask how we can improve track safety for the people who give time to enable us to go racing..."

For full race results, click here.

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