Title race set to heat up in Italy

Fresh from victory in Belgium, Lewis Hamilton will seek to establish a new record for career pole positions and take the lead in this year’s Drivers’ World Championship at this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix.

As Championship leader Sebastian Vettel goes in search of his first win at Ferrari’s ‘home’ track, his nearest rival in Hamilton will be looking for a third victory in four years at the famous Autodromo Nazionale Monza.

Hamilton has also taken pole in Italy for the last three years in succession. He will attempt to extend that to four and – after equalling Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 68 in Belgium – deliver his 69th pole.

If he succeeds, and wins, the Mercedes driver will erase the seven-point gap between him and Vettel and lead the title race for the first time this year by virtue of a greater number of victories.

Hamilton currently has five to Vettel’s four, but he knows – after last weekend’s hard-fought victory – that nothing can be taken for granted.

“Ferrari have the better car and we have to do all we can to stay in front this time,” said Hamilton.

Following Vettel’s decision to sign a new three-year deal with Ferrari, Hamilton appears poised to remain with Mercedes, but the team has made clear ahead of Monza that it intends to delay contract talks until this year’s title race is decided.

Hamilton is committed to Mercedes until the end of next year but has suggested he is ready to make a long-term commitment to the team.

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has said he wants to retain Hamilton, but wants to see the Championship settled before any talks resume.

"Our relationship is very good, and I think each of us appreciates what he has in the other one," said Wolff.

“But this is not a topic we want to tackle now over the last remaining races of the season.

“It's an intense last third of the year and we’ll get that over the line and then we’ll pick up a discussion.”

The team is also expected to retain Valtteri Bottas, who will have a major part to play in this weekend’s contest as he seeks to secure another podium finish.

But for Vettel, it is a key opportunity to retain the momentum in front of the tifosi on a weekend when Ferrari will celebrate the team’s 70th anniversary.

“I think it is the nicest race," said Vettel. “We have a lot of support and the atmosphere is special. I am looking forward to it.”

Vettel claimed his maiden F1® win for Toro Rosso at Monza in tempestuous rain in 2008 and won again with Red Bull in 2011 and 2013. Since moving to Ferrari, he has had two podium finishes, but no win.

Red Bull’s current drivers Australian Daniel Ricciardo, fresh from his podium in Belgium, and Dutchman Max Verstappen, facing penalties following his early retirement due to an engine failure, should also be strong contenders.

“The atmosphere in Italy is pretty awesome,” said Ricciardo.

“I normally like more technical tracks, but Monza is still fun. It’s a track I’ve always enjoyed and it’s quite unique.

“The drivers’ parade in Monza is always special as well – everyone is shouting Ferrari, but it’s still pretty awesome to experience it.”

The two Force India drivers, Mexican Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, will also be a centre of interest following their collisions and post-race row last weekend, when the Frenchman accused his teammate of risking their lives with his reckless driving.

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