Drivers expect another wide-open race at Monaco GP

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MONACO (AP) - The Formula One season so far has been as unpredictably exciting as the roulette tables of Monaco, where the Grand Prix on Sunday could produce a sixth different race winner this season.

While F1 fans are enjoying the drama and suspense of not knowing what’s likely to happen next, the top drivers are scratching their heads as they try to figure out how to pull away from their main rivals. Others are quickly making a name for themselves.

The grid features six world champions. Only three of them have won a race, and of those Britain’s Lewis Hamilton seems better placed to win than Kimi Raikkonen and the ever-struggling Michael Schumacher.

Among the outsiders, Frenchman Romain Grosjean is a threat.

“It is an unusual season with winners you would have never guessed,” said Hamilton, referring to 300-1 outsider Pastor Maldonado’s Spanish GP win two weeks ago in Barcelona. “It is great for the fans as every race translates into a thriller.”

Hamilton had little opportunity to fine-tune his McLaren in Thursday’s practice, as the first session was cut short by some 10 minutes, and after the second was interrupted by rain the track became too greasy for a fast time.

“We haven’t managed to do any proper long runs, and I doubt that we will be able to do that on Saturday morning, so my guess is that we are going blind into qualifying in terms of tires,” Hamilton said. “I guess this weekend will be a box of surprises for us all.”

Hamilton’s teammate, Jenson Button, was fastest in Thursday’s second run, but his time was posted very early and gave little indication as to what lies in store for McLaren in Saturday’s qualifying.

“I think we’re yet to see what either Jenson or Lewis can achieve when they push the car to its fullest extent around here,” McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said. “At the moment, the sharp end of the grid looks extremely close and it’ll be all to play for in what’s likely to be an absolutely thrilling qualifying session.”

Sebastian Vettel, the two-time defending F1 champion, had already won four races at the same stage last year, but has only two podium finishes this season.

The German knows he is in for another tough time unless he gets the pole position. He thinks winning largely depends on the pole, because Monaco is probably the most difficult F1 circuit to pass on.

“Even if the importance (of the pole position) has lessened a bit, that does not go for Monaco,” said Vettel, who won from the pole here last year. “Overtaking is a luxury almost unavailable here, so you’d better start first.”

Although Vettel shares the championship lead with two-time former champion Fernando Alonso (both have 61 points), his form is erratic. He finished 11th in Malaysia, fifth in China, bounced back to win in Bahrain, then was sixth in Barcelona.

He is at a loss to explain why Red Bull is not performing with the same authority as last year, when it would have been unthinkable for Maldonado to beat him.

“It’s not as if we have a clear answer,” he said. “I admit the tires are extremely difficult to understand. Usually we don’t have this problem, but it’s not only us.

“It’s probably harder for people on the outside to understand why their favorite driver wins one race and then at the next race is in the middle or nowhere,” Vettel added. “We’ve had five different teams, five different drivers winning. But over 20 races it will not be right to say the winner of this year’s championship will be lucky.”

Whereas Red Bull looked unstoppable in 2011, no car is dominating this time.

“The Lotus looks pretty quick and I am not quite sure what Red Bull is up to. Ferrari looks fast and so do we,” Hamilton said. “So first you have the usual suspects, but we have seen before that it would be dead wrong to underestimate all others.”

Grosjean will certainly not be discounted after showing in practice that he could well be a contender.

Such has been the reliability of Lotus so far this season, that Grosjean already has one podium _ third in Bahrain _ and he was fourth in Barcelona.

The Frenchman finished second in both practice sessions on Thursday, although most of the leading times were posted early on.

“I think the car is suiting the track pretty well and I love Monaco,” he said. “Let’s see what the weather will be like (on Saturday) and what we can achieve. I think that we are looking good in both conditions.”

The last time a French driver won a GP was in 1996, when Olivier Panis triumphed in Monaco.

“I think Romain can win,” said fellow Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne, who races for Toro Rosso.

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