- Dan Knutson
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SHANGHAI, China -- Lewis Hamilton does not have nightmares about last year's Chinese Grand Prix, where his world championship hopes took a mighty tumble as he slid into a gravel trap.
"No, not really," he said when asked if last year's fiasco still haunts him. "Sometimes I've been on YouTube and seen a video clip or a picture of me in the gravel last year and thought, 'Damn! That shouldn't have happened.'
"But it was a learning mistake. I can still move forward from it. Things like that happen for a reason, and it taught me a lot. Last year, the last couple of races taught me a lot about my personality and my life. And I'm stronger for it."
In 2007, as in 2008, China and Brazil were the last two races of the season. Last year, Hamilton arrived in China with a 17-point lead in the drivers' championship. He left with only a seven-point advantage.
Hamilton was leading in China last year and the track was drying after an earlier rain. The McLaren Mercedes team gambled on leaving him out too long on worn rain tires. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen passed him for the lead.
Finally, Hamilton headed for the pits, but by then his tires were so useless that his car slithered off the road on the entry to the pits and got stuck in a gravel trap. A slightly more conservative strategy would have meant he would have earned points for second or third rather than a big zero.
Raikkonen took the victories in China and Brazil (where Hamilton had another sloppy race and finished seventh) and won the championship by a single point over Hamilton and his McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton heads into this weekend's race with a five-point lead over Felipe Massa. The McLaren driver has 84 and the Ferrari driver has 79.
BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica is still in the hunt with 72 points.
The constructors' championship is not settled, either. Ferrari leads with 142 points, followed by McLaren Mercedes with 135 and BMW Sauber with 128.
If Hamilton can come out of Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix with an 11-point lead over Massa and Kubica, he will be the 2008 drivers' world champion, because the maximum points either of the latter two could score in the season finale would be 10 for a win.
Reigning champion Raikkonen was mathematically eliminated in the recent Japanese Grand Prix. Hamilton had made a poor start and then came steaming into the first corner, braked too late, ran wide, and pushed a number of people off the track, including both Ferrari drivers.
Both Hamilton and McLaren teammate Heikki Kovalainen hit Raikkonen's car.
"I have no idea what the drivers behind me were thinking," Raikkonen said. "They braked so late that it was impossible to avoid the following chaos. It was an inexplicable mistake by the two cars from McLaren, who actually expelled me from the fight for victory at the Japanese Grand Prix. If I had managed to get unharmed through the first corner, I could have won."
Hamilton got a drive-through-the-pits penalty for his actions in Japan, as did Massa for tangling with Hamilton a couple laps later.
The end result of all of the drama in Japan was that Massa earned two points and closed the gap on Hamilton, who earned zero points, from seven to five.
The mistake not pitting in time in China last year was on the team for not calling Hamilton in early enough.
The mistake in the recent Japanese Grand Prix was Hamilton's.
"Looking at Lewis Hamilton's drive, this was not his finest hour,"
three-time world champion Jackie Stewart told the RBS Web site. "You can't win the race in the first corner, but you can lose it, and that's exactly what occurred. I suspect that Lewis, despite all his calmness outside of the cockpit, did not carry out his [and McLaren's] game plan to secure the drivers' and constructors' championships."
While he freely admits he was too aggressive several times last year, Hamilton says the incidents of the recent Japanese Grand Prix won't change his style.
"It didn't come off," he said of his ambitious bid to retake the lead in the first corner. "I don't plan to change my approach.
"The general approach is the same as it was. We come here and we try to do the best job we can. The car is very competitive, and we were very quick here last year. We should be a little bit more competitive this year. But it is going to be a very tough weekend."
When pressed about what he learned in China a year ago and in Japan a week ago, Hamilton replied: "From last year I think just keep your head up when things happen and to avoid the gravel trap here! From last weekend, there were quite a lot of positives I took, I move forward, the team are positive, we make mistakes together as a team and we move on together."
McLaren team principal Ron Dennis says the team supports Hamilton's style.
"He's a racing driver," Dennis told Autosport. "That's what makes him the driver he is. He is going to fight for positions at every opportunity, and you're not going to stop him doing that.
Last year, the last couple of races taught me a lot about my personality and my life. And I'm stronger for it.
-- Lewis Hamilton
"Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been nice if he could have been a bit more prudent in the first corner, but that's the benefit of hindsight. Some of the things he does, you're in awe of him.
"You can't just cherry-pick aspects of drivers. The simple fact is he is a great driver. We're going to fight for the world championship, but it's sometimes an uphill struggle."
Hamilton seemed to be tenser than Massa during the various press calls in the paddock of the Shanghai circuit on the day before the first practice session for the Chinese Grand Prix.
"Felipe is more relaxed," fellow driver Mark Webber observed. "It should be the other way around, because Lewis has been there [in a championship showdown] before, and Felipe has not. But Lewis doesn't have good memories of the races in China and Brazil last year."
What Hamilton also has is five more points than Massa.
"I'd prefer to be leading, but I'm not," Massa said. "But the pressure for results is the same whether you are first or last in the championship."
Of course, Massa, Hamilton and Kubica want to score the maximum points in the last two races. In the previous two races that honor went to Fernando Alonso, who won in Singapore and Japan. Can Alonso make it three victories in a row in China?
"It's difficult to say -- I would tend to say no," Alonso said, "but then again I want to say yes! We saw in Fuji [Japan] that our
[Renault's] level of performance was reasonable compared to Ferrari and McLaren, so you have to feel that once again anything is possible this weekend -- a podium or a victory. The whole team is very motivated after our two wins in Singapore and Fuji, and we will do everything possible to have another strong race."
Alonso, who parted on less-than-cordial terms with McLaren after just one season last year, says he will support Ferrari and Massa over McLaren and Hamilton in their title fight.
"When I said that, what I meant [was] that now that we have a competitive car it seems that we are able to fight sometimes with Ferrari and McLaren," Alonso explained. "First of all, we need to have a competitive car here in Shanghai and in Brazil to be fighting with them. If we do that, and Felipe wins the race and I can be second or third, I will be happy to help Felipe take as many points as possible."
Hamilton, who is not great buddies with Alonso but remains on cordial terms, wasn't bothered by Alonso's comments.
"I don't particularly have an opinion on it," Hamilton said. "I focus on my job. If we can be competitive this weekend, we will try and get points and be up front ... what the others do is up to them."
When it comes to points, Kubica has been steadily adding to his total all season. That consistency combined with the most reliable car in the field, the BMW Sauber, means that he still has a shot at the championship, albeit a long one, with two races to go.
Kubica and BMW Sauber don't plan to change their approach, either.
"My approach is the same as usual," he said. "It has been the same, whether I had zero points after the first race or was leading the championship after seven. I was always trying to score as many points as possible and maximize the potential of this car, which we have seen lately is not the fastest one, but at least it is the most reliable one. That is a key point.
"But we are 12 points behind, and the two drivers in front of me have much more to lose than I have to win. It is no secret that lately our pace is dropping off, and Red Bull and Toyota and Renault have been quicker than us. The last two races showed that anything is possible, due to the weather, safety car, first-corner accidents. Racing is unpredictable, so we should try to do our best."
Now that he is out of the running, Raikkonen will move over if necessary to allow teammate Massa to earn more points.
"I always try to win," Raikkonen said, "and hopefully we are in position for that this weekend. I know what the team expects from me, and they want both championships, so we will see how the race goes and where we are, and then maybe there is some different approach we can take."
So it all comes down to the last two races. Hamilton summed up the feelings of all three championship contenders when he said: "We will give it our best shot."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
There's one surefire way Lewis Hamilton can erase all the bad memories from the disastrous 2007 Chinese Grand Prix: He can win Sunday in Shanghai and wrap up the Formula One world drivers' championship, writes Dan Knutson.