Lewis Hamilton heads into this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix chasing his third straight win but hoping for a straight fight with Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, as the title rivals go into the closing stages of the season on a level playing field.
Hamilton went into the Singapore Grand Prix a fortnight ago trailing Rosberg by 22 points. But his second successive win coupled with a retirement for Rosberg saw him leave the Marina Bay circuit holding a slim three-point lead in the standings.
The Singapore result effectively resets the championship battle between the Mercedes pair and with just five of the 19 races still to run, the former world champion hopes the title can be decided by a straight fight out on track rather than by unreliability.
"Of course, it was disappointing for the team to have another retirement," Hamilton said after his Singapore win. "But I know they have made this a priority moving forwards."
Hamilton perhaps knows better than most how much of a toll poor reliability can take on a championship bid. The 2008 world champion has won nearly double the number of races compared to Rosberg this year but has been forced to play catch up to his stablemate for most of the season as three costly retirements and a whole host of reliability problems have hobbled his title charge.
With hardly anything between the two title rivals as the season nears its conclusion, and with double points on offer at the season-finale at Abu Dhabi, a non-finish for either of the two protagonists could deal a fatal blow to their championship hopes.
"Going into the race weekend you just don't know what… difficulties you're going to face," Hamilton said following his win in Singapore. "All year I've had that gap (to Rosberg) and all year I've had to be chasing it, catching up and then it's gone again.
"So I know what could happen," Hamilton said. The Briton heads into Sunday's race gunning for just his second-ever career hat-trick of victories and the constantly-shifting momentum in the battle between him and Rosberg at the moment appears to be firmly in his favour.
But neither the Briton nor Rosberg have won at the 5.8 kilometer long Suzuka circuit which will play host to Sunday's race. Hamilton's best result around the track -- much loved by drivers who relish tackling the challenge posed by its fast, sweeping corners -- has been a third placed finish which he achieved for McLaren in 2009. Rosberg, meanwhile, has finished no higher than fifth.
Vettel the form man
The form man around Suzuka in recent years has been Sebastian Vettel. The German has won the race here four times in five years and also clinched his second world championship at the track in 2011 with a drive to third. He arrives in Suzuka having scored his best result of the season, a second-place finish in Singapore.
But his hopes of taking his maiden win of the year at one of his most rewarding circuits have to be tempered as Mercedes remain the team to beat, even if the opposition do appear to have made inroads into their advantage.
"On circuits like Singapore we can get closer, but the reality is that the horsepower difference we have is a big factor," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said.
"So while we closed the gap last weekend, at some of the tracks coming up - like Abu Dhabi and perhaps Sochi - it's going to extend again."
Sunday's race is under threat from a typhoon was lurking off the coast of Japan, Formula One's official weather forecaster said in a statement on Thursday.
And while the agency, Ubimet, expects the storm -- a category 4 hurricane name Phanfone -- to pass by south of Suzuka, its northern band is still expected to drench the circuit with rain possibly affecting the race.
Suzuka has been affected by extreme weather before, with qualifying in 2004 and 2010 postponed to Sunday morning, but whether this weekend's race – set to start at 1500 local time -- can be rescheduled if needed remains unclear.
It is unlikely to be delayed in the event it can't be held on Sunday, however, as there is just a week's gap to the maiden Russian Grand Prix in Sochi which is the next race on the calendar. The weather is only expected to worsen on Monday.
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