Fisichella races out of wilderness as Schumacher is left in shadows

There were times when the opening race of the 2005 Formula One season was more akin to the London to Brighton veteran car run, with car following car and nobody overtaking anyone. But perhaps we have been spoiled in recent years by the flat-out-between-pit-stops nature of the sport.

There were times when the opening race of the 2005 Formula One season was more akin to the London to Brighton veteran car run, with car following car and nobody overtaking anyone. But perhaps we have been spoiled in recent years by the flat-out-between-pit-stops nature of the sport.

The new rules encourage preservation of tyres and engines; put that together with a circuit on which overtaking is tricky, and it is not a great recipe. But there is a trade-off and it came in the closing stages as Giancarlo Fisichella, Rubens Barrichello and Fernando Alonso went after one another hell for leather. In the end victory went to the Italian, and it was a sweet one after all his years in the wilderness. But it was a close-run thing.

Two years ago, Fisichella won the Brazilian Grand Prix. The only problem was that nobody realised it at the time except members of his Jordan team, and they allowed themselves to be browbeaten into accepting that Kimi Raikkonen had won for McLaren-Mercedes. The following day somebody did their maths, but when Fisichella finally got his trophy it was two weeks later in Imola. Not the same thing at all.

When he stood atop the podium yesterday, nine years after he first came into Formula One, it was his special moment. Up and down the pit lane, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who begrudged him his success, especially after he had led virtually throughout after starting from pole position and had controlled the race with great panache.

"This was a fantastic weekend and a great way to mark my Renault debut," he said. "I have waited a long time for this."

On the 47th lap, Fisichella held a lead of 12.4sec over Barrichello, but then he lost 2.6sec in one lap after being held up as he lapped Jacques Villeneuve's Sauber-Petronas, and suddenly Barrichello was a threat.

As the red car drew closer, it seemed the Brazilian's Bridgestone tyres were in better shape than Fisichella's Michelins, but to add spice there was Alonso, who had started only 13th but had been driving his heart out all afternoon after he, too, had fought past Villeneuve. He was lapping as fast as Barrichello, and steadily they closed on Fisichella. The Italian had everything under control, however, and was still five and a half seconds ahead when the flag fell. Barrichello was just over a second ahead of Alonso. It had been a slow-burn race, but in the end it was worth waiting for.

With better fortune, David Coulthard might have been on the podium, the Scot revelling in his new role as team leader of the Red Bull team. Everyone there could barely hide their glee as Coulthard held off the challenge of Williams-BMW's Mark Webber, who left their team last year while it was still Jaguar. A bit of opportunism saw Coulthard outbrake Webber for third place going into the first corner at the start, and he kept the blue car ahead even when he had a scare on the 16th lap when he touched the rear end of the backmarker Minardi of Patrick Friesacher.

"My plan was to be cautious, but the racer's instinct kicked in," Coulthard said. "You see a gap, and go for it. When I came upon Friesacher, he lifted before a flat-out corner. He braked and I was on full acceleration." Coulthard's car touched the Minardi and, as he recovered, Webber nearly pounced but had to take to the grass as Coulthard moved over.

"I never saw Mark, and I feel bad about doing that but I was busy getting my momentum back," Coulthard explained.

Webber said: "Fair enough, but it's one I'll remember."

Coulthard's brush with Friesacher improved the balance of the Red Bull, and he was able to hold off Webber more easily as the race progressed.

Juan Pablo Montoya survived a spin and a detached aerodynamic barge board on his McLaren to take an unhappy sixth place, and Christian Klien brought the second Red Bull home in seventh place, just half a second ahead of Kimi Raikkonen in the second McLaren. The Finn stalled at the first start, necessitating a restart in which he started from the pit lane, and also had problems with a loose barge board.

After their winter test pace, it was not a great race for McLaren. Nor was it for Jenson Button and BAR-Honda. The Briton, who finished only 11th, said: "I had a poor start and I was losing three seconds a lap behind Villeneuve. Once I passed him the car was pretty good. But this wasn't the way we wanted to start the season."

It was not a memorable day for Michael Schumacher. He ran 15th for many laps and retired on the 43rd lap after a collision with Nick Heidfeld in the second Williams. "I was defending my position and at one point I lost sight of him," Schumacher said. Some observers believed he moved right to block Heidfeld, pushing him on to the grass and triggering the incident.

It was a memorable race for Narain Karthikeyan, who became Formula One's first Indian driver, bringing home his Jordan in 15th place. While starting well ahead of Schumacher, he lost six places at the start and did not pass another car. But there was a huge reception for him at the end of the race and he stayed behind for some time chatting and signing autographs.

"I didn't expect so many supporters, there were maybe five or six hundred of them," he said. "I'm happy and proud. Now I've learnt what it is to finish a grand prix."

MELBOURNE RESULTS

1 G Fisichella (It) Renault 1hr 24min 17.336sec

2 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari +5.5sec

3 F Alonso (Sp) Renault + 6.7

4 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull + 16.1

5 M Webber (Aus) Williams + 16.9

6 J P Montoya (Col) McLaren + 35.0

7 C Klien (Aut) Red Bull + 38.9

8 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren + 39.6

9 J Trulli (It) Toyota + 1min 03.1secs; 10 F Massa (Br) Sauber + 1:04.3; 11 J Button (GB) BAR + 1lap; 12 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota, + 1 lap; 13 J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber, + 1 lap; 14 T Sato (Japan) BAR + 2 laps; 15 N Karthikeyan (Ind) Jordan, + 2 laps; 16 T Monteiro (Por) Jordan + 2 laps; 17 P Freisacher (Aut) Minardi + 4 laps.

Not classified: M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 42 laps; N Heidfeld (Ger) Williams 42 laps; C Albers (Neth) Minardi 16 laps.

CONSTRUCTORS' CHAMPIONSHIP Leading positions (after first round): Renault 16pts, Ferrari 8pts, Red Bull 7pts, Williams 4pts, McLaren 4pts.

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