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 São 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 Sébastien 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.