The Chinese Grand Prix this weekend marks the penultimate stop on the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship calendar, and it could - just could - determine the destiny of the drivers' crown.

Heading into the round, Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and Robert Kubica are all still in with a shout of lifting the laurels, but only the former can do so in Shanghai. Though he holds a five-point advantage over Ferrari rival Massa, Hamilton has found himself increasingly in the firing line of late for what his rivals have termed his overly 'aggressive' driving style on-track - something he went and corroborated to some degree with his costly first corner misdemeanour in the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway just five days ago.

What's more, China twelve months ago was the scene of perhaps the nadir of Hamilton's debut campaign in the top flight, when the McLaren-Mercedes ace arguably threw his title hopes into the pit-lane gravel trap by insisting on battling Massa's Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen for the race lead whilst on severely worn tyres and when he had no need to. The Finn went on to pip Hamilton to the trophy by a single point at season's end.

How the 23-year-old responds to both the barrage of criticism levelled at him and the memories of 2007 will quite possibly be the key to the championship - and to whether or not he allows Massa to take the fight onto the final race of the year on the Brazilian's home turf at Interlagos a fortnight later still.

Though rain will doubtless favour Hamilton and McLaren, in some ways Massa has the easier task of the pair - needing to look only ahead and aiming for the top step of the podium in the knowledge that the title is his to win and Hamilton's to lose.

The S?o Paulista is equally aware, however, that he will have to up his game in relation to how he performed in Shanghai last year, when he trailed Raikkonen by some margin all weekend, and he too is somewhat under a cloud after he controversially sought to pin the blame on Hamilton and Scuderia Toro Rosso's S?bastien Bourdais for his collisions with the pair at Fuji - even though most paddock observers believed he was at fault on both occasions.

The third contender for the crown, BMW-Sauber's Robert Kubica, is inarguably the outsider and dark horse of the three, but the Pole's startling consistency and ability to outperform the limits of his car have kept him just about in touch season-long. Though his F1.08 may not be a match for either the McLaren or Ferrari - and likely not even anymore for the resurgent Renault - Kubica can be relied upon to give his all, and should Massa and Hamilton fail to score and he racks up his eighth podium finish of the campaign, he will be right back in the hunt heading to Brazil.

The part played by the trio's respective team-mates Heikki Kovalainen (McLaren), Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) and Nick Heidfeld (BMW) cannot be underestimated either, as each seeks to play the role of 'spoiler'. The two Finns, indeed, both ran ahead of Hamilton and Massa in Japan, and can generally be expected to be there or thereabouts when it counts, but Heidfeld will need to cure the intermittent qualifying woes that have bedevilled his 2008 challenge if he is to ably support Kubica, having started the race at Fuji all the way down in 16th place on the grid.

Realistically, the only other potential winner in the field is Renault's Fernando Alonso, who continued to stun the F1 fraternity by registering his second victory in succession last weekend - in a car that back at the start of the year had languished more than a second shy of the leading pace. Though a third win out of three would seem highly unlikely, the Spaniard himself has acknowledged that he now believes 'anything' is possible, and his record in Shanghai is an enviable one, with three rostrum finishes from four starts and an average score of almost eight points per race there.

Whether team-mate Nelsinho Piquet can similarly replicate his Japanese form will also be interesting to see, the young Brazilian rookie belatedly endeavouring to save his seat at the French outfit next year with the best performance of his fledgling F1 career at Fuji Speedway, whilst Renault's biggest rivals Toyota will need to score big this weekend if they are to maintain hope of snaring the highly-coveted fourth spot in the constructors' rankings come season's end.

Jarno Trulli has yet to open his account in China in three appearances, but both he and increasingly impressive team-mate Timo Glock can generally be relied upon to challenge for points, as can the Scuderia Toro Rosso duo of Italian Grand Prix winner Sebastian Vettel and Bourdais, who has all-but matched the man dubbed the 'next Michael Schumacher' in four of the last five grands prix.

The Frenchman in particular will be keen to gain revenge for his penalty in Japan that cost him a sixth position that could have been pivotal to safeguarding his future in the top flight beyond the end of the 2008 season, whilst Vettel has registered points in the last five consecutive outings, and the German w?nderkind will be aiming for no different this weekend, in a race in which last year he took STR's best result of the campaign with a superb fourth place.

The Chinese Grand Prix, meanwhile, will offer Red Bull Racing its last-but one chance of the year to re-assert its authority over 'junior' squad STR. Mark Webber has twice finished inside the points in Shanghai and will be desperate to add to that tally as he battles to preserve his top ten championship standing from late charges by Glock and Piquet, whilst David Coulthard will be beginning the penultimate grand prix of his long and successful career this weekend, and the experienced Scot would dearly love to add one or two more points-scoring finishes to his resum? before the final curtain comes down.

Williams' Nico Rosberg is another man threatening to knock Webber out of the top ten, but the young German's inspired Singapore podium and 15th place in qualifying at Fuji just 14 days later were symptomatic of a season in which the Grove-based multiple world championship-winning concern has drifted from glory to ignominy from one race to another. It is difficult to know just how Williams will perform in Shanghai, but what is certain is that both Rosberg and rookie team-mate Kazuki Nakajima will extract every last thousandth of a second out of the unpredictable FW30.

Down at the rear of the order, finally, China will represent Honda's penultimate chance to add to the meagre 14 points it has notched up thus far in 2008, and Force India's penultimate opportunity to score anything at all. Both possibilities look unlikely, but Jenson Button finished fifth for the former in Shanghai this time last year, and FIF1's Giancarlo Fisichella has upset the formbook on a number of occasions as the season has progressed. Points would be popular for either team and - at such a late stage of the campaign - financially very important indeed.

by Russell Atkins

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