NASCAR & Auto Racing

Pressure on Hamilton and Massa as F1 finale nears

SHANGHAI, China - Lewis Hamilton is hoping his second shot at becoming Formula One's youngest champion turns out better than the first.

For the second straight year the McLaren driver takes a seven-point lead into the final race of the year. After losing the 2007 title to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen because of a botched pass and gearbox problems in the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, the Briton knows that while his lead may be comfortable it isn't safe.

"You can still take absolutely nothing for granted," he said ahead of Formula One's title showdown on Nov. 2. "I still need to pull together a strong qualifying lap, be competitive during the race and avoid failing to finish."

Hamilton took an easy victory in last week's Chinese Grand Prix, where he achieved the combination of win, pole position and fastest lap for only the second time in his career.

Ferrari's Felipe Massa is second in the standings and would need to win and have Hamilton finish no higher than seventh, or finish second while the Briton finishes out of the points to keep the drivers' title from going to McLaren for the first time since 1999.

Hamilton, at 23, would be F1's youngest champion, eclipsing the mark set by Renault's Fernando Alonso, who was 24 years and 59 days when he won in 2004.

Hamilton has played down the comparison with 2007 and is trying to convince others, and perhaps himself, that the pressure is all on Massa, racing in front of his home fans.

"I know that Felipe is very proud to be Brazilian, and that he'll be pumped up to perform in front of his home crowd - and that gives you extra confidence and a mental boost for the whole weekend," Hamilton said on his Web site.

"But it does bring extra pressure too. You know you are there to entertain the people and you don't want to disappoint them by sending them home empty-handed."

Massa, upon his return to Brazil from China, where he finished a distant second, disputed Hamilton's view.

"I've always liked racing at home," Massa said. "You can absorb everything positive from the fans and that helps you do your best.

"The pressure from the fans only helps. It's always better to have it."

Tires will also likely be a factor in Brazil.

While Ferrari showed greater race pace in Singapore and Japan, McLaren was clearly superior in China.

The race in Shanghai used the hardest of Bridgestone's tire compounds. That mitigated McLaren's habit of using up its tires more quickly than Ferrari. The Italian team - which takes longer to get heat into its rubber than McLaren and loses that heat more quickly - struggled for grip in the long, slow Shanghai bends.

But Ferrari is likely to have the advantage in Brazil, where Bridgestone is likely to go back to softer tires.

McLaren also must be conservative with Hamilton's equipment. He goes into the race with the same engine he used in China, while both Ferraris will have new power.

The British driver will also be using the same gearbox for the third straight race. McLaren has not shown any vulnerability with gearbox reliability this season, but the memory of last year's failure will be prominent in the team's thinking.

"Clearly, we can afford to be more conservative than normal in our approach to Lewis' race, but we are still pushing to win the constructors' championship and it would be wrong of us as a team to overlook this fact," McLaren chief executive Martin Whitmarsh said. "There are 18 points available in Brazil and there's no reason why we can't take forward the pace and form we showed in China to achieve a one-two in Brazil."

Ferrari's second and third-place finish in China, combined with the non-finish of McLaren's No. 2 Heikki Kovalainen, gave Ferrari an 11-point edge in the constructors' championship and it appears set for an eighth team title in 10 years.

Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali believes Massa will approach the Brazil race with more mental freedom than he had in China.

"Sunday was a more tense race for Felipe because he knew there was a possibility Lewis could be champion," Domenicali said.

"So I am expecting Felipe to be more, I don't think it's correct to say relaxed, but more tranquil in Brazil rather than in China."

Whatever Massa's mental approach, Ferrari will likely need Hamilton to err badly if the Brazilian is to snatch the 2008 crown.

"I know just how this sport works sometimes, so you'd be foolish to go to Brazil feeling overconfident," Hamilton said.