NASCAR & Auto Racing

New Japanese Grand Prix circuit boosts Lewis Hamilton’s title hopes

OYAMA, Japan – Lewis Hamilton is hoping the new track for this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway will end a recent slump that has allowed McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso to gain ground in the drivers standings.

Alonso, the defending Formula One world champion, has beaten Hamilton in five of the last six races, and the British driver’s one-time 14-point lead has shrunk to just two, 97-95, with three races left in the season.

“I think one or two of them were by luck. A couple issues I had with tires,” Hamilton said. “The other ones he just outperformed me.

“You are trying to get it right and I definitely didn’t get it right the last couple races.”

Hamilton is clinging to the lead in an attempt to become the first rookie to take the F1 title amid a tumultuous two months that have seen McLaren embroiled in a dispute over possession of technical data belonging to rival Ferrari.

After being found guilty by the International Automobile Federation (FIA), McLaren is not only out of the constructors’ title race and fined $100 million, but relations are strained within the team.

Alonso says he has been improving, especially in the Italian Grand Prix, which he won, and the Belgian Grand Prix where he was third and Hamilton fourth.

“You are learning every weekend. For sure I am better now than I was in Spa, and at Spa I was better than I was at Monza,” Alonso said.

Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa will be out to challenge the McLaren duo.

Raikkonen won the last race in Belgium with Massa second. They now have 84 and 77 points respectively.

Hamilton refuses to give up his grip on a possible title.

“We still have three races to go and I think we should be able to turn that over a little bit and turn up the heat, maybe,” he said.

Hamilton will be hoping to some heat on the new Fuji Speedway, a state-of-the-art track at the base of the Mount Fuji that boasts a nearly 1-mile main straight, the longest in the world. The last corner forms a hairpin turn where drivers could pass.

The 2.9-mile circuit obtained a Grade 1 license from FIA last year after hosting its last F1 race 30 years ago when James Hunt drove a McLaren-Ford to victory.

The Fuji Speedway originally opened in 1966. Toyota, which is trying to be more competitive in F1, completed renovations on the new course in 2006.

About 125 miles southwest of Fuji is the Suzuka circuit, owned by rival Japanese manufacturer Honda Motor Co. Ltd., which staged the Japanese Grand Prix since 1987 and will host it again in 2009.

Practice for the Japanese Grand Prix will be held on Friday and Saturday morning, ahead of qualifying Saturday afternoon. Sunday’s race is 67 laps.

Even though Raikkonen and Massa trail the McLaren drivers in the driver standings, Ferrari took its 15th team title when McLaren’s team points were withdrawn.

The drivers kept their points in return for providing evidence against McLaren during the meeting of the World Motor Council on Sept. 13 that was attended by Hamilton but not Alonso, who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with team boss Ron Dennis.

“In Fernando’s mind, there is the firm belief that our policy, whereby each driver receives equal treatment, does not properly reflect his status as world champion,” Dennis said in transcripts released by FIA.

“He bases this assertion on the fact that his experience and knowledge, and what came to him from his former team (Renault), is such that he should receive an advantage.”

Regardless of whether Alonso wins the title for McLaren, he could be elsewhere next season despite a multiyear deal with the team reportedly worth $22 million this year.