Monaco next on Sebastian Vettel's to-do list

May, 25, 2011

Sunday at Catalunya had all the makings of Shanghai: Sebastian Vettel in the lead late, nursing an ailing car with Lewis Hamilton fast approaching in second. But, unlike in China, the defending Formula One champion held off his opposition in Spain to take his fourth win of the season.

It's beginning to look like one of the best title defenses in the history of the sport. Through the first five races, the young German has led 223 of the 294 laps run while outshining teammate Mark Webber. He saw his pole position streak snapped in Spain, but still started on the front row for the 10th straight race.

Vettel's victory means he has earned more than 94 percent of the possible points thus far this season. Through five races, it's the second-highest percentage of points earned by a defending title winner in the past 50 F1 seasons, behind only Michael Schumacher's 2004 campaign.

That year, Schumacher won the first five races en route to his seventh career title, which he clinched before September.

The other most dominant starts in that span include Fernando Alonso in his successful title defense of 2006, as well as Schumacher in 2002. Niki Lauda got off to a flying start in 1976 with Ferrari, but his devastating accident at the Nurburgring sidelined him for the next two races. Miraculously, he returned to battle James Hunt a little more than a month later but ended up withdrawing in Japan because of horrendous weather conditions. In the end, Hunt took the title by a single point.

After a Red Bull front row Sunday, the start of the race told a much different story, with crowd favorite Alonso snatching the lead from the second row. But it wasn't to be, and Alonso wound up a lap down to the leader by the end of the event.

Spain was the third straight grand prix in which fans saw a driver start at or near the back of the field and wind up having an impressive day. Nick Heidfeld was the man to accomplish the feat this week; he started from the back after a fire in practice, yet wound up eighth after a stellar drive. The race before, Kamui Kobayashi also started from the rear and finished in the points.

It's quickly becoming apparent that a poor starting position does not spell complete doom for a driver on race day.

Teams have very little time to prepare for Monaco, the biggest race on the calendar. Red Bull and McLaren enter as the clear favorites, and for Vettel, a Monaco win is yet another accomplishment he'll be looking to remove from his checklist. If he does find victory, he'll be the 32nd winner of this event as well as the fourth straight first-time winner. Only twice in the F1 era of this famed race has the event seen a first-time winner in at least four straight seasons. One of those occurrences came recently (2003 through 2006).

The street circuit of Monte Carlo might be the shortest on the schedule, but it's arguably the most demanding. It also has hosted some of the greatest races in F1 history. The 1992 edition saw Ayrton Senna hold off a furious run from Nigel Mansell, who lost the lead after pitting late. The two crossed the line just two-tenths of a second apart.

A decade earlier, nearly half a dozen drivers had a chance at the win very late in the race, but each suffered remarkable trouble. In the end, and despite spinning, Riccardo Patrese took home the victory to cap a thrilling conclusion.

Monaco is one of three notable races Sunday, along with the Indianapolis 500 and the 600-mile Sprint Cup race at Charlotte. Last year, the trio of races took a combined nine hours to complete, meaning more than a third of the day will see racing action. Exactly 100 drivers will be covering more than 1,200 miles while competing for three trophies, so there should be no shortage of excitement.



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