MONTE CARLO, May 25, 2011 (AFP) - Last year's winner Mark Webber and 2008 victor Lewis Hamilton will be gambling on their skills and strategy to stop defending drivers' champion Sebastian Vettel from winning the Monaco Grand Prix here this weekend.
Australian Webber, 34, hit the jackpot last year when he won pole position and then came home first for Red Bull after a faultless lights-to-flag drive ahead of his 23-year-old team-mate German Vettel.
That win was the first by an Australian in Formula One's glamorous 'showpiece' race for more than 50 years and catapulted him ahead of Jenson Button to the top of the drivers' standings, setting the scene for a close and often bitter scrap with Vettel for the remainder of the year.
This time, it is very different, and not only because new rules and a new rubber supplier have introduced enforced, almost cosmetic, overtaking moves.
The 2009 champion Button of McLaren is down in fourth with 61 points after five races and Webber, third, is ahead of him by just six points, ten behind Button's team-mate and fellow-Englishman Hamilton, on 77.
But out in front, by a long distance already, is Vettel who has already chalked up 118 points to top the title chase after a quarter of this year's scheduled calendar of 20 races, if the Bahrain Grand Prix, as many expect, is reinstated.
This means that Vettel, even if he fails to finish, will continue to lead the championship after Sunday's contest around the twisting Monegasque harbour circuit.
If he wins, he could be more than 70 points ahead of Webber, an advantage that may tempt many bookmakers to stop taking bets on the precocious wunderkind.
Webber, however, like Hamilton and Button, who also won the race on his way to the title, and two-times champion and two-times Monaco winner Spaniard Fernando Alonso is not prepared to countenance that kind of negativity at this
early stage in the season.
Instead, like the other former winners who feel they have a psychological advantage, by having triumphed on this uniquely-challenging circuit. But, as he has conceded, this year's race under the 'new' rules of 2011 and using the fast-wearing Pirelli tyres will be a different and more unpredictable contest than any of its recent predecessors.
Webber said: "We know this is one of the most prestigious races of the year, but there are a lot of question marks going into this one -- in terms of how the tyres will be and how the strategy could be the most complicated of the year.
"It's a track that I've always seemed to do reasonably well at and I have some of my best memories as a racing driver here. It's a demanding street circuit, which requires incredible concentration and composure throughout the weekend, starting with Thursday's practice sessions.
"And if you make one mistake, it can be history. These barriers are unforgiving and you don't have any run-off areas. And, on top of that, the dramatic coast line and cliffs make an incredible backdrop - it's clearly like no other circuit we race at.
"But I have won here. I know what it takes. And I know what I need to do." Vettel, who has demonstrated that he absorbs pressure and expectation without even a flicker of any nervous tension, has said he is looking forward to the race - and seeking his first win in the Mediterranean principality.
"It's remarkable to drive an F1 car around Monaco," he said. "You have to push as hard as on a normal race track, but the smallest mistake can bring a big penalty.
"Grid position is very important and can determine your race, as traditionally overtaking in Monaco is very tricky. Managing the traffic during qualifying is also a challenge.
"As an event, for me, it's one of the highlights of the year. We did well there last year -- I hope we can be very strong again." Given their performances so far this year, the Red Bull pair have every right to feel confident, but Hamilton proved in last Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix, in which he finished half a second behind the victorious Vettel, that he
could be a major threat.
"I think the tyres will probably give us the greatest scope for excitement -- and the best chance of passing," said the Briton.
"I don't think the super-soft and soft compounds will be as critical around Monaco as they were at a place like Turkey, but I still think the drop-off we encounter as the tyres go off should create opportunities for overtaking."
With Button also expecting, like Hamilton, to be extremely competitive, a fiercely-fought contest is in prospect with McLaren challenging Red Bull and Ferrari, inspired by a dogged Alonso, trying to gatecrash their party at the front of the grid.
And Alonso, it should not be forgotten, is regarded as a very fine poker player.