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.