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 Régie's
well-deserved if unexpected Singapore success is far from likely.