Milan: The race for pole position will go a long way to deciding the winner of the Italian Grand Prix this week, with Sebastian Vettel looking to edge a step closer to a fourth straight Formula One title.
He silenced talk of a comeback by Lewis Hamilton with one of his most dominant performances of the season at the Belgian GP 10 days ago and extended his championship lead to 46 points over Fernando Alonso and 58 over Hamilton.
The 3.6-mile Monza track features four long straights where drivers reach speeds of 205 mph. That suits Vettel, because the Red Bull driver is notoriously hard to stop once he makes a flying start.
Five of the past six winners at Monza started from pole.
"Monza is the fastest circuit of the year," Vettel said. "This track brings back great memories from my first win there in 2008 with Toro Rosso. I can't describe the feeling of standing on the top of the podium for the first time, and Monza was one of the best places to experience it because of the thousands of passionate fans that stand beneath."
The last driver to win from behind the front row was Rubens Barrichello in 2009, starting from fifth. Despite the straights, overtaking is difficult and that is good news for Hamilton, who won last year's race from the front. The Briton is seeking his fifth consecutive pole position this season.
Although Hamilton was overtaken by Vettel after just 31 seconds at Spa, that was a much bigger, wider track, and it is unlikely to happen so easily in Monza.
"The layout and atmosphere of Monza are very special and it really feels like you are going back to Formula One's roots," Hamilton said. "The car has a completely different aerodynamic package to anywhere else on the calendar with really low downforce."
Alonso drove superbly at Spa to move up from ninth on the grid to finish second and reclaim second spot in the title race.
Although that was an encouraging sign for a Ferrari team that is struggling for consistency, there appears little belief that Alonso can really catch Vettel with eight races left.
Instead, Ferrari has given two races to close the gap and then they'll likely give up and focus on next season. Teams face a big decision as to when to start pumping resources into next year's car, when the regulations change dramatically with the introduction of new 1.6-liter V6 turbo engines.
"The changes that we are facing are the biggest changes we have ever had in Formula One," Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali said. "It is really important to get it right, otherwise you're lost."
Domenicali says switching all their efforts to 2014 after the Singapore GP could help them get a head start on their rivals.
"At the end of September we will then basically switch everyone, depending, of course, on how the situation is with the championship," he said. "All the top teams realize that if they want to be a force in 2014, then they have to start very quickly to switch resources, as it is a very complex matter. My guess is that we might see huge surprises."
Personnel changes are expected at Ferrari next year, with Brazilian driver Felipe Massa under pressure to keep his seat after managing just one podium finish so far.
"My favorite choice would be to keep Felipe because he is a very good guy, very dedicated to the team," Domenicali said. "But, of course, we need good results from Felipe."
For the time being, Alonso looks set to stay.
The two-time former champion was linked to the vacant seat at Red Bull for next year, as was Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen. But the guessing game ended on Monday when Australian Daniel Ricciardo was announced as Mark Webber's replacement.
Like at Spa, tire manufacture Pirelli will supply the teams with the two hardest rubber compounds, and the medium and hard tires should ensure a maximum two-stop strategy over the 53 laps.
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