The Japanese Grand Prix this weekend marks the 16th of 18 rounds on the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship calendar, and an absolutely pivotal moment in the see-saw title battle that has been waged almost season-long between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa.

Fuji Speedway - nestled at the foothills of Mount Fuji, Japan's highest peak and just over 62 miles outside of Tokyo - hosted the inaugural Japanese Grand Prix back in 1976, but it was subsequently stripped of the race just two years later as it was deemed to be too dangerous, following an accident that befell the legendary Gilles Villeneuve and killed two spectators.

The Japanese Grand Prix did not re-appear on the F1 schedule after that until 1987, when Suzuka assumed the mantle, and the race remained at the southern Japanese circuit until a Hermann Tilke re-designed and now Toyota-owned Fuji reclaimed its spot last year. The only part of the original, NASCAR-style banked layout that now remains is the 1.5km-long pit straight.

The 2007 edition of the event witnessed a torrential downpour and even a post-race earthquake, and similar conditions cannot be altogether ruled out twelve months on. Such conditions would arguably suit world championship leader Hamilton right down to the ground, the McLaren-Mercedes star having consummately dominated the race last year.

What's more, the 23-year-old heads into the weekend with the crucial psychological advantage and comfort cushion of a seven-point lead over Massa in the drivers' standings, following the Brazilian's failure to score in the wake of Ferrari's disastrous pit-stop during the night-time Singapore Grand Prix last time out.

Both drivers know the pressure is on, but equally both will now be able to rely upon the full support of their respective team-mates Heikki Kovalainen (McLaren) and Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari), with the latter having finally conceded defeat in his endeavours to defend his hard-fought drivers' crown after registering his fourth failure to score in succession in Singapore.

Both Finns have come under fire at stages in 2008 for having appeared lacklustre in comparison with their team-mates, and at such a crucial point in the title battle, whichever of the two performs the most consistently could just hold the key to the world championship laurels.

The third man still in with a shot at glory this year is BMW-Sauber's Robert Kubica, earlier this week re-confirmed at the Munich and Hinwil-based concern for 2009. Though his car has rarely been a match for either Hamilton's or Massa's, that has not stopped the Pole from punching above his weight on many an occasion during the season so far, but he knows that if he doesn't out-score both of his title rivals this weekend, his outside bid will likely be all-but over.

Kubica's team-mate Nick Heidfeld - seemingly back on-form following his mid-season slump - cannot be discounted from the podium equation in Fuji either, and nor can Renault's Fernando Alonso, though the Spaniard has been keen to warn that a repeat of the R?gie's well-deserved if unexpected Singapore success is far from likely.

The performances of Alonso and Toyota duo Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock, indeed, are likely to determine the destiny of fourth position in the final constructors' rankings over the last three grands prix of the campaign, with Shanghai in China just a week after Japan on 19 October and Interlagos in Brazil two weeks later still on 2 November.

Alonso has largely single-handedly hauled Renault above Toyota into the position of 'best-of-the-rest' behind the top three teams, but only five points separate the two - with 54 still to be played for.

In Renault's favour is the fact that the R28 now appears to have a clear performance edge over the TF108, but whereas Nelsinho Piquet seems generally unable to back his team-mate up in the points-scoring stakes, both Trulli and Glock can invariably be counted upon to be there or thereabouts when the chequered flag drops, and moreover Fuji is Toyota's home race - meaning this particular scrap could go on all the way to S?o Paulo.

Having earlier made fourth position in the constructors' rankings its own, Red Bull Racing has slipped ever-further off the pace as the campaign has progressed, and losing points with both Mark Webber and David Coulthard in Singapore has left the energy drinks-backed squad at serious risk of ending the season just eighth, behind 'junior' outfit Scuderia Toro Rosso and a rejuvenated Williams.

Both STR and Williams have been on something of a roll recently, courtesy of Sebastian Vettel's spectacular breakthrough pole position and victory at Monza, and Nico Rosberg's inspired charge to the runner-up spot in Singapore, leaving only five points blanketing STR, RBR and Williams heading into Japan.

In the 'second' cars, S?bastien Bourdais' form has been up-and-down of late, the Frenchman showing genuine signs of improvement in Valencia, Spa and qualifying at Monza, but being dealt a significant blow after failing to get away from the grid in the latter and subsequently doing little of any real note in Singapore.

Kazuki Nakajima, by contrast, continues to get stronger by the race, and though the Japanese rookie confesses to suffering from some understandable nerves ahead of his home race [see separate story - click here], his fifth points-scoring finish of his maiden campaign a fortnight ago will surely see him arrive to a rapturous reception from his partisan supporters - and determined to pay them back with another good showing.

Down at the rear of the order, finally, Honda's slump and Force India's advances have now reached such a point that it is difficult to predict which of the pair will have the upper hand this weekend. Whilst the Japanese manufacturer's budget fairly dwarfs that of the former Jordan and Midland F1 minnows, Giancarlo Fisichella in particular has been working minor miracles in his VJM01 of late, breaking into Q2 for the first time all year in Italy and running up in second place for a handful of laps in Singapore.

Though such a scenario is unlikely to be reproduced in Japan, it would be wise to remember that grand prix debutant Markus Winhelhock did lead the race on his maiden appearance in the top flight last year - and if Honda fails to turn up the wick on home turf, questions will surely be asked...

by Russell Atkins

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