Schumacher wins Aussie GP; Villeneuve crash kills official

Jacques Villeneuve's Formula One season began on a tragic note Sunday when debris from the Canadian's car hit and killed a track marshal during the Australian Grand Prix.

Villeneuve's car collided with Ralf Schumacher's vehicle on the fifth lap of the race. The marshal, only identified as an Australian in his 50s, suffered chest and abdominal injuries when struck by a tire from Villeneuve's car.

The man died later in hospital. Seven spectators suffered minor injuries from flying debris and were treated at a first aid centre at the track while six others received medical attention at the scene.

Villeneuve said he was shocked to learn of the marshal's death.

"This is very, very heavy," the native of Iberville, Que., said. "These guys don't expect to lose their lives working at the track.

"It is going to take a while to absorb the meaning of this because of the shock I am feeling."

Race winner Michael Schumacher said the death took much of the lustre from his victory.

"We are all shocked about this," the German said. "We have to look at what is possible from our side, what kind of support we can give . . . but certainly everyone is very much down about the situation."

Last September at the Italian Grand Prix, a 33-year-old volunteer track official was killed when hit by flying debris after a five-car crash in the race.

The Australian marshal's death was the second at a major race in two weeks. American NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt was killed in a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.

Schumacher continued the Ferrari dominance established last year by holding off the second-place McLaren of English driver David Coulthard by 1.7 seconds in the opening race of the Formula One season.

Schumacher's time was 1:38.26.533 at an average speed of 187.464 kilometres an hour.

Michael Schumacher got a good start on the 5.3km Albert Park temporary road course and held a 1.33-second lead over McLaren rival Mika Hakkinen of Finland after two laps.

But Hakkinen, the 1998 winner, went out of the race on the 26th lap of the 59-lap race when his McLaren spun out of control and hit the wall. Hakkinen was checked for a concussion, but was cleared of any other injuries.

With Hakkinen gone, Schumacher's lead increased to more than 10 seconds over Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello of Brazil in second.

Coulthard chipped away at Schumacher's lead late in the race, but the German held on for his second consecutive win in Australia. Barrichello was third, and German Nick Heidfeld was fourth.

The BAR team's problems didn't stop with Villeneuve. Teammate Olivier Panis of France originally finished fourth, but was relegated to seventh after incurring a 25-second penalty for a yellow flag infringement. Stewards announced the decision four hours after the race ended.

In the accident, Villeneuve's BAR Honda rode up the back of the Williams of Ralf Schumacher. The impact threw Villeneuve's car into the air, hitting the top of the fence and nearly catapulting it over into spectators.

Villeneuve's car lost all four wheels before hurtling down the concrete barrier, spewing parts of his car along the way. There wasn't much left of the vehicle when it stopped, and some drivers said they thought it was a miracle that Villeneuve had emerged unscathed.

"Ralf was in the centre of the track, and I didn't know which way he was going to go," said Villeneuve. "By the time I went to the outside, it was too late."

Ralf Schumacher was surprised to have been hit from behind.

"I just braked, and all of a sudden I was KO'd up the back," he said. "I don't think Jacques realized when to brake or what I was going to do, and he just crashed into me.

"It was a mistake that can happen. I just wanted to make sure that we both got out of there unhurt. Obviously it was not my mistake."

A statement by Villeneuve's BAR Racing team said an investigation was under way by governing racing body FIA, Australian officials and the Victoria state coroner and that the team "would prefer not to speculate over the cause of the accident."

"On behalf of Jacques, the British American Racing Honda team and myself I would like to express our sincere condolences to the family," BAR-Honda chief Craig Pollock said.

Former world champion Jackie Stewart said the accident highlighted the need to look into safety issues.

"We have to try and retain the accidents within our race tracks," he said. "Bigger, higher, stronger debris fences, and maybe you have to move the crowd back.

"But the problem is when a racing car disintegrates, for example, at 300 kilometres an hour, it's an aircraft accident, not a car accident. The dimensions of that accident, with regards to how far debris will go, the whole dynamic of where these parts can reach and how they go, you could go on forever building fences to the sky. I mean, we can't do that."

Formula One rookie Juan Montoya, a native of Colombia making the switch from the CART series, retired from the race with engine failure on the 40th lap.

The victory was the 45th of Michael Schumacher's 10-year career. He needs just seven more to break the Formula One record of 51 held by Alain Prost.