/ 16 October 2008

Test of nerve for F1 title contenders in China

All eyes will focus on three men when the Formula One circus congregates in the paddock in Shanghai ahead of Sunday’s potentially decisive Chinese Grand Prix.

Championship leader Lewis Hamilton of McLaren, Felipe Massa of Ferrari, and BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica will all enjoy the scrutiny of a world waiting to see who will crack under the pressure — or relish the chance to rise and shine.

Hamilton, the 23-year-old Englishman who has dominated much of the last two years’ action and been at the heart of many controversies, is fighting to preserve a calm exterior as his points lead is slowly whittled down.

Massa (27), from São Paulo, who has enjoyed multiple doses of good fortune with race stewards and some slices of ill luck, is hoping his lucky streak holds until his home race in Brazil.

And Poland’s Kubica, in a marginally less-competitive car but blessed by an easy-going temperament, is enjoying a belated opportunity for a blind-side run at glory, 12 points adrift of Hamilton.

Of the three, Hamilton remains favourite because he has a five-point lead ahead of Massa, but he knows that he cannot afford any more hot-headed mistakes.

Last year, he effectively lost the title in Shanghai when he slid off into a gravel trap while coming in to pit and change tyres that were worn down to the canvas.

Hamilton, however, insisted that he is not haunted by that nightmare image from his rookie season when the title slipped from his grasp.

”No, not really,” he said.

”Sometimes I’ve been on YouTube and seen a video clip, or a picture, of me in the gravel and thought, ‘Damn! That shouldn’t have happened.’ But it was a learning mistake … I can still move forwards.

”Things like that happen for a reason and it taught me a lot. Last year, the last couple of races taught me about my personality and my life. And I’m stronger for it.”

Hamilton’s self-confidence, a necessary part of his ultra-competitive armoury of speed and aggression, has helped make him the daring driver that he is.

But, now, at the business end of the season, it is a characteristic that may blind him from pragmatic reality.

This says that he only needs to finish second twice — in his worst scenario where Massa wins twice — to take the driver’s title.

It is not, therefore, necessary for him to win races and, if Massa has one less than perfect race, he could take the title with an even more conservative approach.

Yet Hamilton is insistent that he will continue to attack, seek victories and the championship on his own terms — at full throttle.

And he has the support of his team.

”He’s a racing driver. That’s what makes him the driver he is. He is going to fight for positions at every opportunity and you’re not going to stop him doing that,” said McLaren chief Ron Dennis.

”You can’t just cherry-pick aspects of drivers. The simple fact is he is a great driver, we’re going to fight for the world championship, but it’s sometimes an uphill struggle.”

Both McLaren and Ferrari have adopted contrary positions since Sunday’s bitter clashes in Japan, after which Hamilton accused Massa of deliberately ramming him.

Ferrari replied by claiming that defending champion Kimi Raikkonen lost his chance of winning the race because of McLaren’s aggression.

As Hamilton, Alonso and Kubica battle for the championship, Fernando Alonso is seeking a hat-trick of victories in his Renault.

The experienced Spaniard suggests that Hamilton and Massa are gripped more by a fear of mistakes than the pressure of trying to take the title.

”More than the pressure is also the worry about making a mistake or that something goes wrong in the car,” said Alonso, who won the title in 2005 and 2006.

”You spend too much effort thinking that anything can go wrong and this puts pressure to you every time.” — Sapa-AFP