- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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With four races remaining, including this weekend's Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, perhaps it's a bit early to call this a make-or-break weekend for Formula One's title contestants.
Or perhaps not.
The FIA certainly broke McLaren's spirit and its hopes of winning a ninth F1 constructor's cup with its unprecedented ruling Thursday that essentially disqualified the Mercedes-Benz-powered team from this year's championship. And the $100 million fine imposed by the world motorsport sanctioning body as additional punishment for McLaren's role in one of the most spectacular industrial espionage cases in history would definitely result in most other teams going broke.
But McLaren pilots Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were not penalized and remain solidly 1-2 in the driver's championship, although the FIA said Friday that Alonso was directly involved in the scandal, citing e-mail exchanges that proved he was in possession of secret technical data that belonged to rival Ferrari.
The uber-rookie Hamilton leads two-time defending world champion Alonso by just three points after 13 of 17 races.
Meanwhile, Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa need to make something happen at Spa while hoping that both McLarens break in order to make up the points deficit they face. The Ferrari duo are the only other drivers with a mathematical chance at the crown, but they need to start closing the deficit to Hamilton and Alonso immediately if they want to take the championship battle to the final Grand Prix of the year, set for Oct. 21 in Brazil. Raikkonen trails Hamilton by 18 points, and Massa is another five markers in arrears, with a total of 40 points left on the table.
Inclement weather is part of Spa-Francorchamps lore, but Mother Nature shouldn't make or break anyone's chances this weekend. The race-day forecast calls for cool temperatures and sunny skies.
With all that in mind, let's take a closer look at how this weekend's race could make or break each key contender's championship challenge -- and tab a trio of drivers who are at the make-or-break stage of their F1 careers.
Lewis Hamilton -- 92 points (first)
Discard any preconceived notions you have about rookie drivers. Hamilton might be in his first season of Formula 1, but he has handled the pressure like a seasoned veteran. No first-year F1 driver has led the championship so late in the year, and Hamilton shows no sign of relinquishing the points lead. Even though he's just 22 years old, Lewis is an old hand when it comes to championship battles, having prevailed in Formula 3 and GP2 in 2005 and 2006.
Designed and built before they could steal any secrets from Ferrari, the McLaren MP4/22 is without a doubt the fastest car on this year's F1 grid. By recent McLaren/Mercedes standards, it also has been remarkably reliable, and a mechanical failure is probably the only thing that will prevent Hamilton from finishing on the podium at Spa. But whether he finishes first or eighth, the key for Hamilton this weekend is simply to finish ahead of his teammate. If he finishes second behind Alonso, Lewis still will lead the standings by one point.
Fernando Alonso -- 89 points (second)
Alonso leads the series with four wins in 2007, but the two-time world champion has not been as consistent as his rookie teammate. The Spaniard endured two potential title-killing races: In Canada, pit-stop issues meant he finished only seventh, while in Hungary, Fernando's gamesmanship cost him the pole position and led to a fourth-place finish. Hamilton won both races, for a net advantage of 13 points in those two events.
As a former series champion, Alonso expected to receive preferential treatment from McLaren, and he has been unhappy with the team's convoluted attempts to keep absolutely everything equal between its drivers. His frustration at being beaten by a rookie has boiled over on occasion, but Alonso was at his best in winning last week's Italian GP at Monza, a track where he has not run well in the past. If Fernando wins at Spa, he will take the lead of the championship if Hamilton finishes third or worse. If he fails to finish and Hamilton wins, his hopes for a third consecutive crown are broken.
Kimi Raikkonen -- 74 points (third)
The flamboyant Finn would like nothing better than to break the seal on a bottle of vodka to celebrate a win at Spa this weekend. But based on McLaren's form this year on high-speed tracks like Monza, the Ferraris might be fighting among themselves for third place.
What really would make Raikkonen's weekend would be watching the two McLarens crash each other out. A win in Belgium would give Kimi 84 points, which would look like a pretty reasonable points tally if the McLaren drivers fail to score. But the odds of that happening are remote.
Felipe Massa -- 69 points (fourth)
Like Raikkonen and Hamilton, Massa has earned three race wins in 2007. But he has suffered far more mechanical unreliability than the other three championship contenders, most recently in the form of a duff damper in Ferrari's home race at Monza.
Massa has done everything necessary this year to step out of Michael Schumacher's shadow and proved that he got the Ferrari ride on talent, and not just because his manager is Ferrari chief Jean Todt's son. But unless he wins this weekend and all three drivers ahead of him in the standings DNF, the world championship is going to be out of reach this year for the Brazilian.
Giancarlo Fisichella -- 17 points (eighth)
Many observers believe Fisichella is the most overrated driver on the F1 grid, and his performance (or lack thereof) in 2007 certainly backs up that claim. Even accepting the fact that this year's Renault is a dog, Giancarlo has scored fewer points than his rookie teammate Heikki Kovalainen. Unless he notches a win or at least a podium finish in the last four races, expect "Fisi" to be replaced by Nelson Piquet Jr. in 2008.
Ralf Schumacher -- 5 points (14th)
Being the brother of the most successful driver in F1 history has its pros and cons. On the one hand, the name Schumacher was probably the biggest reason Ralf made it to F1 in the first place. On the other, with the exception of a brief period in 2001-02 when he won a few races with Williams-BMW, Schumacher has never looked like world champion material and his name is probably the only thing keeping him in the Grand Prix field. Toyota is ready to break away from Ralf's massive salary, and after an extremely disappointing 2007 campaign, only a miracle will save his F1 career.
Vitantonio Liuzzi -- 0 points (20th)
Liuzzi kept his job when Scuderia Toro Rosso fired Scott Speed in a midseason housecleaning, but he already knows he'll be replaced by Champ Car star Sebastien Bourdais next year at STR. A points-scoring finish at Spa or in any of the other remaining races might help Liuzzi remain on the F1 grid in 2008.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
3dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz