The 28-year-old German effectively won his third Monaco Grand Prix in the taut minutes just before the start. A drizzle, wet patches on the road and instinct told him to go with settings and tyres for a wet race. By the first corner he had eclipsed Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Williams, shod with slick tyres, on the recommendation of the team's weather expert, and the contest was over. Frentzen and his team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, were sliding into oblivion, Schumacher sailing to the top of the drivers' championship in place of Villeneuve.
The more overt joy, however, was not that of Schumacher, nor of the Ferrari camp, who also had third place courtesy of Eddie Jordan, and the lead in the constructors' standings. The most uninhibited celebration was to be found among the team that Jackie Stewart, also three times a winner here, had assembled barely in time for the start of this season.
Stewart-Ford's first four races yielded only the inevitable frustration. The fifth, gloriously and unexpectedly, second place, delivered by Rubens Barrichello. On a day of mayhem and drama, Stewart was back in the mainstream of a sport he graced in the Sixties and Seventies, appropriately sharing the attention with Schumacher, the modern master of the drivers' craft.
Schumacher declined to suggest he might still head the title chase at the end of the season, maintaining the next race at Barcelona, would restore the true perspective, but as his team director, Jean Todt advised, this was a performance and a victory to savour. Having made that critical decision before the race, Schumacher demonstrated his incomparable car control in the wet, having the confidence to fishtail through corners with no one remotely threatening. He said some sections were treacherous, and late in the two-hour race he went straight on at the first corner because he feared he might not negotiate the turn, secure in the knowledge he could spin out of trouble in the run-off area.
He was six seconds clear after a lap, 15 after three. On the final lap he slowed down and allowed Barrichello to close from a deficit of 66sec to a mere 53sec at the end.
In the process, Schumacher had lapped the hapless Williams pair, both of whom changed to wet tyres, but too late to salvage even self-respect. The team's ignominy was complete when Frentzen and Villeneuve bumped the barriers and retired.
Their misery was shared by many. When David Coulthard's McLaren-Mercedes spun coming down to the harbour chicane, the knock-on chaos proved devastating. Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen joined the casualties. Johnny Herbert would follow them on the list.
The Jordan-Peugeot challenge lost momentum, although Giancarlo Fisichella's sixth place brought the team another valued point. Still more precious were the two gathered by Mika Salo for Tyrrell-Ford, with a heartening fourth behind Olivier Panis' Prost-Mugen-Honda.
Jan Magnussen just missed out on the points in the other Stewart, but then they were not inclined to be greedy in this team compound. Stewart, three times Formula One champion and winner of 28 grands prix, had never known it more beautiful. He escaped the clutches of his wife, Helen - wearing the lucky T-shirt she had when her husband last won here, in 1973 - and said: "I have never had a happier day in my entire motor racing life. No championship, no victory ever left me so elated. I'm so pleased for everyone in the team. I never expected to be on the podium so quickly, and in Monaco of all places it is something exceptional. Rubens drove like a master. But Schumacher is extraordinary, and without him we might have been first."
Barrichello, endeavouring to relaunch his career after under-achieving at Jordan, said: "It's not long ago when I woke up at eight o'clock in Brazil and turned on the TV to watch the Monaco Grand Prix, the most famous grand prix, and for me to be on that podium today is something else."
Frank Williams, the most successful Formula One chief in recent times, provided proof of the sport's capacity to catch out even the best. He accepted responsibility for his team's demise. "We have our own weather forecaster. He's been accurate in the past and we took advice from him. He said there would be a fine drizzle which would dry up. We went with that and got it wrong. Ferrari got it right."