BMW-Sauber star Robert Kubica is the most deserving of the three contenders for this year's Formula 1 World Championship - that is the view of Jacques Villeneuve, who claimed the crown for Williams-Renault back in 1997.

Whilst McLaren-Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton enters the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai this weekend feasibly in a position to sew the title up before the Interlagos finale a fortnight later, and Ferrari ace Felipe Massa remains the man most likely to stop him, Kubica has quietly kept himself in the hunt season-long by dint of his remarkable consistency and the ability to invariably extract every last ounce of performance out of his car - whilst his two fellow challengers have appeared increasingly prone to slip up on banana skins.

"The one who really deserves it now is Kubica," Villeneuve contended in an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast, effusive in his praise for the driver who - ironically - forced him out of the top flight in mid-2006. "He has not been in as good a car as either Felipe or Lewis, yet he has produced a season without mistakes.

"Both Hamilton and Massa have been making mistakes towards the end of the season that have let Kubica come back, which has made it more exciting for everyone because three guys can win it, and we thought there could only be two."

Indeed, arguably the costliest of Hamilton's mistakes this year was the one that saw him leave his braking dangerously late into the first corner of last weekend's Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji - sending his rivals scattering wide in his wake and setting off the chain reaction of events that would see Massa cut his lead at the top of the standings from seven points to five with 20 remaining up for grabs.

That, combined with the 23-year-old's reputation for cracking under pressure earned by having conceded a 17-point advantage in the closing stages of the 2007 battle to ultimately miss out on the laurels by a single point, means Hamilton is seen as being particularly vulnerable as the 2008 showdown closes in. Though he continues to lead, the Stevenage-born ace has not now triumphed since the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim seven races ago.

"Hamilton is extremely fast, there's no doubt about that," Villeneuve acknowledged. "A lot will depend on whether he wins the championship this year or not, because last year he had it in his hands and threw it away at the end of the season. This year he's got it in his hands with two races to go, so we'll see how it pans out.

"He's been thrown in very young and been told for many years that he's the best in the world. At some point you end up believing that, and I guess that happens to most drivers at some point in their careers."

The French-Canadian - who has competed in both NASCAR and sportscars since quitting F1, including making his debut in the iconic Le Mans 24 Hours endurance classic last year - also defended Massa's clash with Hamilton at Fuji, even if he does reckon the stewards have been overly harsh on the McLaren ace as the season has worn on.

"I wouldn't have been happy in [Hamilton's] shoes," the 37-year-old remarked of the spin into which Massa tipped the Briton in Japan, "but, at the same time, I'm sure he's done moves like that in his career and it's part of racing.

"We've all done those as racers, where you badly judge where you'll end up. They've both been making mistakes right now, which has been amazing, but you have to say the penalties that they've both been getting have been a little bit surprising.

"It's really strange because once you start giving penalties away you just have to keep giving more and more, and where do you cut the line? I think it's alright for a driver to try something, make a mistake and bad luck if [he] takes other drivers out with him, that's racing - as long as it wasn't done dangerously on purpose to take someone out."

Fellow former grand prix star Johnny Herbert, meanwhile, has warned his countryman that he will need to 'use his head' if he is not to risk seeing history repeat itself twelve months on from his 2007 S?o Paulo heartbreak.

"I think the guy who should win the championship is Lewis," the 1995 British Grand Prix winner - testing for the Speedcar Series in Dubai - told Gulf News. "Like last year, he has the advantage once again.

"After what happened last year, though, you would think this year would be better, but he has cut his lead to five points because he didn't use his head in the last race.

"We'll have to see what happens in the last two races, but as of now we have to say that his temperament is letting him down. What he did in Fuji was not so clever, and I hope he learns from that and uses that in China and then in Brazil."

"Stay cool," added 1996 title-winner and Villeneuve's former Williams team-mate Damon Hill, "and you can win the title."

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