Michael Schumacher avoids pile-up for victory

Who needs a new car? The champion scores Australian hat-trick in last season's Ferrari
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World champion Michael Schumacher emerged from the wreckage of a major pile up on the first turn of today's season-opening Formula One race to win his third consecutive Australian Grand Prix.

Driving last season's Ferrari, Schumacher avoided the Melbourne crash zone and covered 58 laps of the Albert Park street circuit in 1 hour, 35 minutes, 36.792 seconds to collect his 54th Grand Prix title.

The four-time drivers' champion finished 18.6 seconds ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya in a Williams-BMW with Kimi Raikkonen, in his maiden race for McLaren as the replacement for dual world champion Mika Hakkinen, finishing third.

Winning "wasn't thought to be before we came here - we're nicely surprised we were able to get through here," said Schumacher, who was driving his old car because Ferrari hadn't finished testing the 2002-model on time.

It was a first podium finish for Raikkonen, but was more relieved just to be among the eight cars that finished in cool and overcast conditions. The race started with 22 cars on the grid.

Raikkonen caught some debris on his first loop and return to the garage before the start, meaning he had to commence at the back of the grid.

It was the safest place to be after Williams No. 1 Ralf Schumacher rammed into the back of Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari and sparked a series of crashes.

Eddie Irvine, who won the 1999 Australian GP in a Ferrari, steered his Jaguar from 19th place to fourth, just ahead of Minardi rookie Mark Webber and Toyota's Mika Salo.

Webber, racing his first GP and doing it on home soil, was the toast of 127,000-strong crowd after improving from 18th on the grid into fifth, while Salo gave Toyota its first F1 points on debut.

"I feel like a won the race," said Webber.

Malaysian Alex Yoong was seventh in the other Minardi after starting from the last row and Pedro de la Rosa of Spain steered the other Jaguar into eighth place.

Michael Schumacher said his win would have more satisfying if his teammate Barrichello, who'd won pole position in qualifying, hadn't been caught in the carnage.

"I didn't know what was going on," he said. "It was just cars flying everywhere. I was afraid to turn into the first corner. I drove wide through the grass, which was probably a good decision."

Michael Schumacher described his brother's crash as "frightening" and said the race should have been stopped and started all over again.

"I was very concerned so I radioed the pits and they told me everything was OK," to keep driving, he said.

Montoya swooped into the lead in the 11th lap, passing the German on the inside just seconds after McLaren's David Coulthard had slipped onto the grass and lost first spot. But Schumacher regained the lead with an overtaking maneuver on turns 1 and 2 at the start of lap 17.

"I was holding him and holding him until he was going to find a way past," Montoya said. "He drove around the outside ... it was like I was parked. He just drove into the distance."

Schumacher said he expected his duel against the former North American CART ace to continue.

"I would assume it's going to be a much tighter battle from here on," he said.

Ralf Schumacher, starting from the second row, had overtaken his older brother and was trying to get around Barrichello when he slammed into the back of the Brazilian's Ferrari and was catapulted through the air and into a speed trap.

"It was frightening, I can tell you," he said. "Going airborne in an aircraft is a lot nicer than going airborne in an F1 car, which is not really made for that."

Ralf Schumacher said he'd tried to overtake inside and outside but Barrichello "closed the door" on him both times.

"OK he tried to brake into the first corner ? I thought it was a bit early but he definitely changed the line twice ... we are only allowed to do it once, so that's the main problem."

Barrichello didn't accept fault.

"Even if he thinks that I moved too many times, I moved back to the left probably a centimeter or so," the Brazilian said. "If he wanted to overtake on the outside, he should have moved a lot further."

The smoking pileup claimed Giancarlo Fisichella in a Jordan, both Saubers of Felipe Massa and Nick Heidfeld, Jenson Button in a Renault, Olivier Panis in a BAR and Alan McNish in a Toyota.

None of the drivers was injured and FIA allowed the race to continue under yellow flags, sparking criticism from some teams.

"It was an absolutely silly accident. The decision by FIA not to stop the race is absurd," said Jordan chief Gary Anderson.

Coulthard took the post-crash lead ahead of Renault's Jarno Trulli, Montoya and Michael Schumacher, who'd started in the front row.

But the McLaren No. 1, who was second here last year, kept slipping back until he retired with gearbox problems.

Both Arrows had earlier stalled in the scheduled start, leaving Enrique Bernoldi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen stranded on the track. Both rejoined the race but were later disqualified.

Jacques Villeneuve had moved into sixth before he lost a wheel on turn 12 of the 28th lap and slid into a barrier.

The Canadian also failed to finish last year. Although the result of his collision with Ralf Schumacher last March was tragic when a wheel off his car spun off and penetrated a safety barrier, hitting and killing a marshal.

The death of 52-year-old Graham Beveridge sparked design changes to F1 cars and circuits that might have saved serious injuries in this crash-bang Australian GP.