SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton can chalk up three wins in a row for the first time in his Formula One career on Sunday but Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg will be doing all he can to deny him the hat-trick.
Returning to the Chinese circuit where he took his first pole and victory in 2012, Rosberg has been runner-up in the last two races but still leads the championship by 11 points after his season-opening success in Australia.
The pair served up a thriller under the floodlights in Bahrain 10 days ago and another wheel-to-wheel duel in China would be a further boost for a sport fighting back against criticism of its new regulations.
Hamilton, the 2008 champion, is ready to do his bit.
“I’m in a really good place at the moment and walking around the garage too, you can see the positive energy within the team right now,” he said in a team preview.
“I’m getting stronger every time I come to this track and it suits my driving style quite well. The aim, as always, is to win and if I could make it three in a row this weekend that would be incredible.”
The Briton is one of only two drivers to have won twice in Shanghai - Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso is the other - but Hamilton still has painful memories of throwing away a championship lead when he went into a gravel trap at the circuit in 2007.
Rosberg will seize on any such slip-ups. The German ended his team mate’s bid for three poles in a row with the quickest lap in qualifying in Bahrain and then showed just how little separates the two on track.
“The layout seems to suit my driving style, it’s a track I enjoy racing at and I want to be back on that top step of the podium this weekend,” the German said.
The Mercedes V6 turbo power unit has been the pick of the field, and the circuit will play to their strengths, but rivals are pulling out all the stops to catch up.
Remi Taffin, head of track operations for Red Bull’s engine partner Renault, said the manufacturer was feeling more confident after a troubled start to the season.
“At the test in Bahrain (after the race), we tested several new software modes that will see us closer to the limits of the power unit than before,” he said.
“Overall we’re looking forward to China. While we know it’s still an uphill battle, we feel we have hit our stride now.”
That could be good news for champions Red Bull, who lost an appeal on Monday to have Daniel Ricciardo’s second place in Melbourne reinstated, even though they are expecting another tough weekend.
“Mercedes are again going to be very difficult to beat... given the kilometer-long straight,” said principal Christian Horner, whose team took their first F1 win in China with Sebastian Vettel in 2009.
“But then once we get back to Europe we need to start making inroads into them.”
McLaren, now third overall behind Force India after a double-retirement at the Sakhir circuit, are bringing some updates and looking for solid points.
“Bahrain showed that, the top two cars aside, the racing this year is fast, fraught and very evenly matched,” said Jenson Button. “The margins are so slim that it’ll require us to get everything right.
“But I’ve always enjoyed racing in China - I won here in 2010, and I’ve always had good results here for McLaren. While it’s not necessarily a track that perfectly suits our package, I think we can pull everything together and have a stronger weekend.”
Ferrari won last year with Alonso but Stefano Domenicali quit as team principal this week with North America president Marco Mattiacci taking the helm.
Whether anything changes on the track for the glamour team remains to be seen, with the Spaniard and Finnish team mate Kimi Raikkonen struggling home ninth and 10th in Bahrain.
“We are ninth and 10th because there were eight people who were better than us,” Alonso, who has urged Ferrari to work day and night, told reporters in Bahrain.
“We want to change this as soon as possible and that needs to start in China.”
Editing by Alan Baldwin/John O'Brien