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Red Bull face tough test at Monza

By Alan Baldwin

MONZA, Italy (Reuters) - Red Bull will need to be quicker than ever at Monza this weekend if Formula One's runaway leader Sebastian Vettel is to get on the podium at Ferrari's home circuit.

The champion, winner of seven of the 12 races to date this season, has little to worry about given that he is 92 points clear at the top after leading Australian team mate and closest rival Mark Webber to a one-two at Spa in Belgium.

But Monza, the fastest circuit on the calendar as well as a temple of Italian motorsport, has played more to the strengths of Ferrari and McLaren in recent years.

Since Red Bull Racing appeared on the scene in 2005, the team has yet to finish on the podium at the circuit outside Milan while Ferrari have won eight of the last 15 there.

Vettel triumphed with Red Bull's Italian-based sister team Toro Rosso in 2008, when he celebrated his first win, but the Monza fans are not alone in expecting Ferrari and Fernando Alonso to repeat last year's success in Sunday's final European race of the season.

"Of course this is our target, our objective but it will be very difficult," Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali told Reuters at a fan event at Pirelli headquarters on Wednesday.

"I am expecting, I hope, that during the race we will be very competitive.

"This year in qualifying we have seen that we did not have the package to be quick on the single lap and I would say it is more difficult to be on pole," he added.

"But this year with the two sectors of DRS (adjustable rear wing) and this new situation with the tyres, I think everything is possible."

WEAKEST CIRCUIT

If Alonso -- who has only one win to his credit so far this year -- can repeat last year's pole position for Ferrari, then he will end a Red Bull run of qualifying domination that stretches back to last season's final race in Abu Dhabi.

McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, smarting from his non-finish at Spa, and 2009 champion team mate Jenson Button -- runner-up for the past two years at Monza -- will also be the men to beat while Mercedes and old Ferrari favorite Michael Schumacher can never be counted out.

"We know Monza, in recent years, has been our weakest circuit and we know Ferrari will be strong there, as they historically are, as will McLaren and Mercedes," Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said after Belgium.

"But this result gives us a lot of confidence, and we will be going to Monza to try and better our previous best result which is a fourth place."

Vettel and Webber were fourth and sixth respectively last year, the Australian's best result at Monza in nine visits, but the car's sector times at Spa this time around have raised Red Bull spirits.

With Vettel's second title fast approaching, and just seven races remaining, it would be entirely consistent if the German did not win on Sunday.

Only twice in the last 20 years has the winner of the Italian Grand Prix gone on to take the title that year, although on both those occasions it was a German who did it -- Schumacher in 2000 and 2003 with Ferrari.

"Monza holds incredibly special memories for me," said Vettel this week, reminiscing about his 2008 win. "That's something I will never forget - I had goosebumps standing on the podium with the fans below.

"The track is not particularly physically demanding but, despite that, it is certainly not easy. Because of the long straights we drive with less rear wing than at other circuits, so the car can be more unstable."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Martyn Herman)

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