Lewis Hamilton will revel in the luxury of being in control of his Championship destiny at this weekend’s final Malaysian Grand Prix.
Hamilton, who has a 28-point lead over Sebastian Vettel following a hat-trick of wins, has admitted he just cannot stop smiling – and may struggle to take Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff’s warnings about complacency too seriously.
A year ago, after the penultimate Malaysian contest at Sepang – an arid modern facility close to Kuala Lumpur International Airport – a miserable Hamilton trailed his teammate Nico Rosberg by 23 points after his Mercedes engine failed while he was leading.
There was talk of conspiracy theories and retirement.
But now, the three-time World Champion says he is ‘loving’ his scrap with four-time World Champion Vettel and relishes every race.
And little wonder. This season, Hamilton has broken Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 68 pole positions, and – after his own 60th victory, in Singapore two weeks ago – is musing on the possibility of equalling his record of 91 wins.
“I definitely have thought about retirement,” he told the Jonathan Ross chat show in London last week. “But now we're in the heat of this battle and I'm loving it more than ever.
“It's the greatest feeling ever, so I'm going to keep going for as long as I can and see what I can do.”
Hamilton’s apparent run of ill fortune a year ago has been turned on its head this season, demonstrated most clearly in Singapore where pole-sitter Vettel collided with his Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen at the approach to the first corner of the opening lap.
The spectacular carnage of the multiple collision also took out Fernando Alonso of McLaren Honda – leaving Hamilton, who started fifth, in the lead and on his way to a convincing victory.
With six races to go, he is unarguably on top of the world again.
But Wolff has warned Hamilton, who won ahead of Valtteri Botas in a dominant Mercedes one-two, it is essential they all stay focussed for the final run-in.
“We will need to be on top of our game at every track to maintain our lead,” said Wolff. “The last race was a strong reminder that sport always has the power to surprise.
“We have been on the receiving end of those bad memories before.”
For Ferrari, Singapore was the nadir in a roller-coaster season that also saw the team flop at its home Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
But team boss Maurizio Arrivabene has vowed to keep the pressure on.
“Singapore doesn’t mean the battle is over,” he said. “Just that it has become more difficult.”
After his humbling, Vettel will seek an immediate riposte at Sepang, where he shares the record of four wins with Schumacher. Hamilton’s only success was in 2014.
A year ago Aussie racer Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, who this week announced Aston Martin as title sponsor from 2018, gained from Hamilton’s blow-up when they completed a one-two.
After strong recent form, they are ready to spring another surprise that may see Ricciardo share a “shoey” – champagne from his driving boot – with Verstappen again.
“My victory last year was definitely unexpected,” said Ricciardo this week. “It just goes to show you never know what can happen.”
Sadly for Malaysia, this is the final event of the circuit’s current contract and commitment to host a race in unrelenting heat, humidity and sometimes thunderous downpours.
The race joined the calendar in 1999.
As Sepang says farewell, French GP2 champion Pierre Gasly, 21, makes his debut with Toro Rosso, replacing Russian Daniil Kvyat, who has scored just four points this season.