Formula 1 will make history this weekend when the inaugural Singapore Grand Prix becomes the first race in the sport's 58-year history to be held after dark.

The top flight's second of four Far Eastern appearances of the season - and round 14 of the 18-meeting calendar - is being hailed as one of its most significant landmarks ever, as 20 F1 drivers and cars will take to the challenging Marina Bay Street Circuit under floodlights in what is being billed as a real venture into the unknown. And whichever of them crosses the chequered flag first after 61 laps of competitive action on Sunday will take away a little bit of history to boot.

World Championship leader Lewis Hamilton is hoping that man will be him, and the McLaren-Mercedes star has an extra incentive to go for glory in the city-state, after the FIA International Court of Appeal controversially threw out his team's effort to get the British star re-instated as the winner of the Belgian Grand Prix earlier this month - a race in which Hamilton triumphed on-the-road, but was subsequently penalised 25 seconds and demoted to third place after stewards deemed he had gained an unfair advantage by cutting across the grass at the Bus-Stop chicane during his frantic closing laps scrap with Ferrari adversary Kimi Raikkonen.

Looking towards Singapore, however, Hamilton does possess two advantages over chief title rival Felipe Massa. To begin with, he has been near-peerless in the rain this season - and wet weather is seen as almost a given over the course of the weekend - and secondly, he is sure to have the uncompromising support of team-mate Heikki Kovalainen as he endeavours to lift the drivers' world championship laurels having come so agonisingly close twelve months earlier, at the end of what was incredibly only his rookie campaign in the top flight.

Whether Massa can rely on the backing of team-mate Raikkonen, by contrast, is anything but clear, with the Brazilian underlining that he is fighting his own battles and the Finnish defending world champion adamant that until he is mathematically out of contention - which should his current form continue he soon will be anyway - he will push on to retain his hard-won crown. What's more, the Ferrari has been invariably ill-at-ease in wet conditions this year, meaning it is arguably advantage McLaren as the race weekend dawns.

The fourth man still in realistic title contention is BMW-Sauber's Robert Kubica, who presently sits 14 points adrift of Hamilton in third place in the drivers' standings. The Pole has been a consistent thorn in the side of the leading two teams season-long, out-performing the limitations of his car wherever possible and keeping himself in the hunt by rarely putting a wheel out of place.

Moreover, the challenging nature of the new track in Singapore could just play to the 23-year-old's advantage and allow him to keep in touch with Hamilton and Massa ahead as the championship showdown approaches apace. Team-mate Nick Heidfeld's form, though, remains unpredictable, with the experienced German scoring strongly in each of the last two grands prix at Spa-Francorchamps and Monza, but still struggling to make an impression in qualifying - an issue that could cost him dear around what is a tight and twisty street circuit.

Beyond the established leading three teams, one of the major points of interest this weekend will be to see whether Scuderia Toro Rosso's Italian Grand Prix form was a genuine mark of improvement or merely a weather-aided flash in the pan. Either way, the small Faenza-based squad has been coming on in leaps and bounds in recent weeks, and Sebastian Vettel's Monza triumph was without doubt one of the finest performances in F1 memory, as the young German drove like a seasoned pro to see off all challengers and consummately triumph behind the wheel of a car that prior to the weekend few members of the paddock would have tipped to fight for the podium, let alone the win.

What Vettel can achieve in Singapore will be fascinating to observe, whilst under-pressure team-mate and namesake S?bastien Bourdais is similarly featuring ever-more strongly as the 2008 campaign nears its close, the French record-breaking Champ Car king displaying vastly improved pace - if still being in desperate need of a change of luck.

Along with STR, Renault and Toyota must also be seen as strong contenders for solid points-scoring finishes, if not perhaps a little better. Whilst the R?gie would appear now to have the upper hand in terms of raw pace - with former double world champion Fernando Alonso coming home a competitive fourth in three of the last four outings - the Enstone-based outfit is somewhat hampered by the inability of Nelsinho Piquet in the sister R28 to get on similar terms, the young Brazilian having scored points on just three occasions from 14 races to Alonso's eight.

That contrasts with Toyota, for whom both Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock are proving to be regular points' challengers, making up for the TF108's dip in performance compared to its French rival by effectively taking on Renault's sole contender Alonso on dual fronts. The squabble over the coveted fourth position in the constructors' rankings looks set to rumble on until season's end - with the rejuvenated STR not to be discounted either should the team maintain its startling recent form - but parent outfit Red Bull Racing looks to be somewhat out of the fight now, the RB4 showing strong qualifying pace in the hands of Mark Webber, but drifting backwards come race day.

Indeed, the energy drinks-backed squad could find itself under attack from Williams over the final four races, with Singapore a track that may favour the Toyota-powered FW30, and the Grove-based concern's star driver Nico Rosberg buoyed by a superb qualifying performance at Monza last time out that saw the young German start from fifth place on the grid - where he would also race, fending off the threat of Massa behind, for the early part of the grand prix.

Down at the back of the order, finally, Force India appear - on Italian form at least - to have overtaken far better-funded rivals Honda on outright pace, with Giancarlo Fisichella finally and popularly achieving the Silverstone-based outfit's first Q2 appearance on home turf at Monza, and racing competitively too until his premature retirement from the grand prix twelve laps in.

Force India chairman Vijay Mallya claims to have been inspired by fellow former backmarkers STR's recent upsurge in form, and his team's advances of late have surely embarrassed Honda, whose 2008 campaign has been consigned to the scrapbooks as 'one to forget' - with the big budget Japanese manufacturer proclaiming the age-old mantra...Roll on next year.

For F1's 20 drivers, however, there is only one thought on their minds as the glitziest sport on the planet prepares to go one step more glamorous still. Roll on Singapore!

by Russell Atkins


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