Three-time world champion Niki Lauda has suggested that this year's world title could be fought out between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, unless reigning champion Kimi Raikkonen raises his game quickly.
The Finn heads into this weekend's inaugural European Grand Prix on the streets of Valencia trailing Hamilton by five points in the championship race and, despite heading his Ferrari team-mate Massa by three, has not looked on top form for some time.
Although he looked set to win at Magny-Cours before an exhaust problem dropped him behind Massa, Raikkonen has struggled to challenge Hamilton since his team erred on strategy in the British Grand Prix. The world champion finished fourth at Silverstone and sixth in Germany two weeks later, before being handed a podium in Hungary by Massa's demise three laps from home. In each of the last two races, however, the Finn has looked lacklustre - and it is this that Lauda reckons could cost him a shot at title number two.
"Up until now, it has been Massa and Hamilton [who have the edge], because Raikkonen's performance has been going up and down all the time," the Austrian - who drove for both Ferrari and McLaren in his grand prix career - told the official F1 website, "It is very difficult to say [who is the best driver in 2008], as the driver is always connected to his car's performance. You have to look at the two combined. For me, in Budapest it was certainly Massa, but two races before that it was Hamilton."
Asked if Raikkonen could be considered a 'wild card' for the title after his success last year, Lauda wasn't sure that the Finn warranted the label.
"At the moment, clearly not," he insisted.
Despite his opinion, however, Lauda is not convinced that Ferrari is about to throw its weight behind Massa with seven rounds to run.
"This will be automatically resolved at some point but, for the moment, Massa has the edge over Raikkonen from the driver's point of view," he admitted, before conceding that the Scuderia was being matched for strength by its main rival, "At the moment, both teams are even, especially as their drivers do sometimes make mistakes. Massa was doing a perfect job in Budapest, but this did not help him because of his car's engine failure. [Heikki] Kovalainen did a good job in winning the Hungarian Grand Prix, his first race win, but he was very lucky."
With none of the four drivers at Ferrari and McLaren enjoying a trouble-free season, the title fight could come down to the wit and wisdom of their respective teams, although Lauda again admitted that there was little to choose between the veteran Ron Dennis and comparative rookie Stefano Domenicali as the better team leader this year.
"This is very hard to say, as both seem to be even," the Austrian noted, "Ultimately, the result at the end of the season will show who has done a better job."
Raikkonen, meanwhile, admits that he needs to start winning races if he is to remain in the hunt for a second title.