MONACO (AP) With pole position so important at the Monaco Grand Prix, the pressure will be firmly on Lewis Hamilton in Saturday's qualifying as the Formula One champion bids to avoid a ninth race without a win.
Hamilton calls winning Monaco from pole ''a procession'' because the run to turn 1 is not long enough to give a driver much chance of overtaking. He would have won from the front last year, only to be undone by a late team order to come to the pits following a crash and finishing third.
''Everyone that's expecting a good race should know this is a track that you really can't overtake on, so qualifying's going to be the race,'' Hamilton said. ''Everyone here knows if you have pole position you are going to win, and with a one-stop race it's a procession.''
Hamilton's championship run last year was equally stress-free, clinching it by 59 points ahead of Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.
He was a picture of confidence when he won the United States GP in late October to clinch his second straight F1 title - and third overall - with three races to spare. He even dismissively tossed a cap for Rosberg to wear on the podium.
It all seemed rather easy, much like winning the Monaco GP from pole - where the only major stress can be when to take the pit stop - but the roles have been reversed and Rosberg has fought back hard.
Although Hamilton has been on the podium six times in the past eight races, Rosberg has won seven of them and is this season's runaway leader. The German driver, who now has 18 career race wins, is 39 points ahead of Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen and 43 clear of Hamilton.
Even when Hamilton secured pole position in the first two races of the season - in Australia and Bahrain - Rosberg still won the race, leaving Hamilton stuck on 43 career wins.
In Spain two weeks ago both Mercedes drivers crashed coming out of the first corner, but before that incident Hamilton had pole - only for Rosberg to slipstream him and catch him heading into turn 1.
''Nico did a great job, as we saw, which I think caught Lewis by surprise,'' Mercedes executive technical Paddy Lowe said.
Last year in Austria, Hamilton had pole but Rosberg made a brilliant start, screeching past him on the way to victory. It didn't do that much to dent Hamilton's title charge, but it was an early sign that Rosberg was improving his outright speed, which has been confirmed this year.
Both drivers, however, have other things than their own rivalry to think about before Saturday afternoon's qualifying session - notably how good Red Bull is going to be.
Following on from teen driver Max Verstappen's stunning victory in Spain, Red Bull fared strongly in Thursday's second practice, with Daniel Ricciardo fastest and Verstappen nestled in fourth behind the two Mercedes cars.
Red Bull looks to have made better use of the new ultra-soft tire compound, which has given Mercedes much to think about.
''It's important we do our homework,'' Rosberg said. ''We want to see if we can get a bit more out of (the tires) for qualifying because the Red Bulls were doing something pretty good, and we need to try and understand.''
When Hamilton was easing toward his third title last year, Red Bull was lagging well behind and it came close to cutting ties with engine supplier Renault.
Now, with Verstappen on board, Ricciardo finding his form and a strong chassis, things are looking up again for Red Bull - which won four straight drivers' and constructors' titles with Sebastian Vettel behind the wheel from 2010-13.