Vettel locked in tight battle ahead of Monaco GP

When Sebastian Vettel headed to the Monaco Grand Prix last season, all the talk was of how quickly the Red Bull driver would wrap up the Formula One championship.

It could not be more different this year, with the two-time defending champion tied with two-time former champion Fernando Alonso of Spain and seven drivers within 20 points of each other in one of the most wide-open seasons for years.

It started with six world champions on the grid for the first time ever, and after this weekend another record could tumble.

There has been a different winner at each of the five races so far — which last happened in 1983 — and a sixth winner on Sunday would be a first in F1 history.

"No one's really got any momentum yet in terms of results. But obviously there are a few people that follow the sport that love it like this," Red Bull driver Mark Webber said. "It depends who you ask. If you want to have lots and lots of different teams being competitive, that's the way it is at the moment, which I don't think is too bad."

A sixth different winner remains a distinct possibility considering that former champions Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen are still looking for their first victories of the season.

"I've scored points at every race, and I'm only eight points off the lead of the championship," McLaren driver Hamilton said. "That's a really encouraging statistic, and it's reassuring to see my approach is paying off ... there would be no better place for the cards to fall in my favor than at Monaco."

Last season's Monaco GP was one of most exciting races of the season, featuring almost as many twists and turns as the famed street circuit itself. Vettel appeared certain to be caught by Alonso or Jenson Button, until a crash involving Vitaly Petrov and Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari swung the balance back in Vettel's favor as a red flag came up.

This gave Vettel a priceless gift: Changing his worn out tires without the need for an official pit stop. When the race restarted, he comfortably held off Alonso.

The race featured numerous crashes and prompted improvements to the track.

Various sections have been resurfaced to remove bumps, the tire walls in turns one and 14 have been replaced by barriers, and a crane on the end of the barrier in the chicane's run-off area has been removed, providing more space.

But Vettel does not expect this to make things any easier.

"It's rough and, as it's a street circuit, the road surface is uneven so you get shaken in the car and there is no room for mistakes," the German driver said. "You have to push yourself and the car to the limit to be fast, you have to push as hard as on other tracks, but there's no room. You need to be fully focused on the track.

"It's a special thing to win in Monaco."

Vettel will be desperate for a win to pull ahead of his rivals.

Before last year's race, Vettel had opened up a commanding 41-point lead over Hamilton by winning four of the opening five races, and was a massive 67 points ahead of Alonso as Ferrari struggled.

This time, Hamilton sits only eight points behind the top two; Raikkonen is 12 points back; Webber is 13 points adrift and Button is only 16 points behind and could leapfrog his rivals if he powers his McLaren to victory.

Button, who finished third at Monaco last year, is in a confident mood.

"I go back to Monte Carlo with a little bit of unfinished business," he said. "The team has a great history around Monaco and I'd love to add my name to McLaren's Monaco winners' list."

He thinks the race conditions could suit him.

"We'll be running Pirelli's Supersoft compound (tires) for the first time — which should be interesting," he said. "I'm optimistic of getting on top of the balance issues that have affected me for the past two races. It's going to be a fantastic weekend."

Among the five race winners this season is Venezuela's Pastor Maldonado, whose joy at leading Williams to its first F1 win since 2004 at the Spanish GP was tempered by a fire in the team garage that left several people hospitalized and seriously damaged material.

But the Williams team fully expects to be competing as usual.

"The impact of the fire has been mitigated by what can only be described as a Herculean effort by the factory and our suppliers to restock both the damaged equipment and car parts," said Mark Gillan, the team's chief operations engineer. "We would also like to thank the generous offers of help from the other teams, highlighting once more the excellent sportsmanship that exists in Formula One."