Championship battle shares F1 spotlight with off-track turmoil

OYAMA, Japan -- Mount Fuji, when it isn't shrouded with clouds, provides a dramatic backdrop to a tight championship battle, political turmoil and the tense relationships that all are part of this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix at the revamped Fuji Speedway.

Just two points separate Vodafone McLaren Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, who lead the championship standings. Hamilton is ahead with 97 points to Alonso's 95, but two-time champ Alonso has the momentum, having outscored his rookie teammate in each of the previous three races.

In the most recent Grand Prix, in Belgium, Alonso pushed Hamilton off the track as they exited the first corner just after the start. Then the pair went side by side through the daunting, high-speed Eau Rouge corner, where Hamilton finally had to back off to avoid a crash.

Hamilton planned to talk with Alonso about the incidents in Belgium here in Japan.

"We have got to be careful and remember that we are teammates," Hamilton told reporters.

But Hamilton is ready for anything.

"I am driving to keep the car on the track and be fair to everyone," he said, "but if that is how aggressive [Alonso] wants to be, then I can be just as aggressive as anyone else. But I am not going to take any silly risks and take myself or anyone else off -- just make sure I am ahead of them -- and it won't be an issue."

Both McLaren drivers have finished each of the first 14 of this season's 17 races, and with one exception for Hamilton, they have been in the points on every occasion.

Red Bull driver Mark Webber doesn't think they will maintain that finishing record. He believes the McLaren duo is destined to tangle.

"I don't think both McLarens will finish the next three races," he told ESPN.com.

And that would be the break Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen, third in the standings and 13 points behind Hamilton, needs.

"Raikkonen is sitting in there nicely at the moment," Webber said. "If the two McLarens go skating off into the barrier and Kimi wins ... and that's possible because it is unmanageable now between the two McLaren drivers."

Raikkonen's strategy in Japan and in the remaining races in China and Brazil is simple: Go for it.

"We still have a chance," he said. "We know it is going to be very difficult, but you never know when there can be issues with other cars, and maybe a surprise. But we try to do the best that we can and then just see where we end up. There is nothing else we can do."

Raikkonen's Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa, fourth with 77 points, also is still mathematically in the hunt for the title.

"To win the championship, you need to have everything perfect," he said. "This year, our reliability was not perfect, but I am satisfied with the season."

Massa said he is willing to play a supporting role to help Raikkonen's championship bid if asked to do so by Ferrari.

Alonso, meanwhile, has been the focus of many rumors that he will leave the McLaren team at the end of the year. He and McLaren boss Ron Dennis are not on speaking terms at the moment and have not been so since early August, after Alonso told Dennis that he had illegally obtained Ferrari data on his computer.

The data on Alonso's computer, along with that on the computer of McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa, was part of the evidence the FIA's World Motor Sport Council used to fine McLaren $100 million and throw the team out of the 2007 World Constructors' Championship.

The constructors' championship table certainly looks strange with McLaren at the bottom with zero points.

"About the spying, I have nothing to say. ... I will try to speak on the track and try to do my job," Alonso said when he met with reporters at the Fuji track. "I really think that many of the things that have been said about the spying and about me are totally wrong and not the truth."

As for leaving McLaren, Alonso insists he has a contract for 2008.

Dennis says one reason McLaren decided to pay the whopping $100 million fine was to try to bring closure to the spy scandal and do what's best for F1.

That may be the case, but the turmoil surrounding spy-gate still is simmering here in Japan.

"If you disqualify a team, you should probably disqualify the drivers as well, because they're all involved and work for the same team," said 13th-place Jarno Trulli of Toyota Racing. "It's difficult for me to judge, so I don't want to say any more. It's just a shame F1 has suffered. The sport has been hit hard by this spy story all around the world."

In addition to battling with one another's lawyers at various FIA hearings, McLaren and Ferrari have taken turns being the better team on the track this season.

It's just a shame F1 has suffered. The sport has been hit hard by this spy story all around the world.

Jarno Trulli

"I am sure that the championship will continue to swing between all four drivers," Alonso said. "Ferrari were strong at Spa [Belgium], and we were strong at Monza [Italy]. Everyone at McLaren is pushing hard to be strong at Fuji, Shanghai [China] and Interlagos [Brazil].

"We can still win races, and we will be doing everything to make this happen in Japan."

The Fuji Speedway has been the scene of dramatic championship showdowns before.

The track hosted the first Japanese Grand Prix in 1976. Niki Lauda led the points standings ahead of James Hunt. In the race, however, Lauda withdrew because he refused to continue in the pouring rain, which he believed made the track conditions too dangerous. Hunt had a flat tire but managed to slither home fourth to clinch the championship by a single point.

Mario Andretti won to score his first victory with Team Lotus.

Hunt drove then for McLaren and Lauda for Ferrari. And now, 31 years later, the two teams are dueling for the championship again at the same track.

In 1977, Andretti started from the pole at Fuji, but the victory went to Hunt. The race was overshadowed by a tragic accident in which Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari spun off the track, killing two people and seriously injuring seven more. They had been standing in a prohibited area.

F1 did not return to Japan until 1987. The race took place at the Honda-owned Suzuka racetrack, which hosted the Grand Prix until 2006.

Toyota, meanwhile, bought the Fuji circuit and gave it a complete overhaul. The 1-mile main straight remains, but the rest of the track layout has changed considerably and now features a series of mostly tight turns.

Thus all the teams and drivers face the same challenge of learning the new track and getting their cars' setups dialed in as quickly as possible.

While obviously none of the drivers have raced F1 at Fuji, several -- Ralf Schumacher, Sakon Yamamoto and Takuma Sato -- competed in other categories on the old layout.

"I actually lived not so far away from here," Schumacher said. "The place has changed a bit. They've done a good job."

Sato has raced only a bicycle around the track, but he lives in Tokyo (60 miles away) and knows all about the fickle weather that can quickly descend on the Fuji area.

"Knowing Fuji and around here, already this morning ... it was as though it was going to rain at any minute," he said. "So I think it will be tricky, but I think everything is welcome. I think more changeable weather conditions or anything gives a great chance, even though one's in a risky position as well."

Fuji's long, wide straight funnels down to a sharp hairpin at Turn 1. The drivers have to slow the cars from nearly 200 mph to 50 mph. It will be interesting to see what happens if Hamilton and Alonso (who were fastest at the end of the first day of practice) go in there side by side on the first lap of the race.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.