Mercedes in F1 comfort zone but Lewis Hamilton wary of threats to his crown
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Istanbul - Lewis Hamilton returns to the scene of a memorable triumph in pursuit of a record-equalling third Turkish Grand Prix win this weekend, but wary of more than one threat to his world championship crown.
Eleven months on from a spectacular victory for Mercedes in treacherous rain-hit conditions that secured him his seventh drivers' title with three races remaining, the 36-year-old Briton is this year only two points ahead of Red Bull's Max Verstappen with seven to go.
That knife-edge advantage offers him little protection and he knows also that he may face a grid penalty if forced to take a fresh power unit, as the Dutchman did two weekends ago in Russia, for a contest likely to be run in similarly wet weather.
Last year's event was the first at Istanbul Park for nine years and was run on a newly resurfaced and very slippery track that, like Sochi last month, conspired to deliver a high degree of jeopardy and drama.
On both occasions, Hamilton used his experience and race-craft to overcome inauspicious circumstances and deliver stunning victories rewarded by drawing level with Michael Schumacher's title tally and posting an unprecedented 100th F1 triumph.
His goals this Sunday will be more prosaic as he seeks to beat Verstappen and protect, or extend, his advantage in their enthralling title scrap and to avoid a third collision between them following their crashes at Silverstone and Monza.
Verstappen, by contrast, seeks to erase the memory of a dismal race last year when after qualifying on the front row, he spun and flat-spotted his tyres on the way to sixth, his worst finish of the season.
"It wasn't the best weekend for us, as a team," he said. "But I think it will be quite different circumstances this year –- the track should be more 'grippy' and there will be a lot for us all to learn."
'Brilliant buzz' at Mercedes
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff conceded that it was "possible" that Hamilton would have a new fourth engine of the season and a grid penalty for Sunday's race, but stressed his squad were in a very positive mood.
"There's been a brilliant buzz in the team over the last week or so," he said. "Being back on top of the podium was an incredible feeling, particularly after such a dramatic race.
"And it was obviously made more special by Lewis's 100th race win. In the moment, milestones like this are exceptional, but I think it will take time for us to realise just how remarkable this period is and how privileged we are to be part of his journey.
"The final moments of the last race in Russia proved anything can happen in F1 and fortunes can change in the blink of an eye."
Having regained the momentum, Mercedes will strive to keep it, but Red Bull will want to snatch it back as a tribute to Honda, their engine suppliers, who are leaving F1 at the end of the year.
The team plan to run in a special mainly white livery, which was intended for use at the cancelled Japanese Grand Prix, which has been replaced by the Turkish race.
"It always feels special to race for Honda, even without a special livery," said Verstappen. "For us and for Honda to miss out on Japan is a shame, but it's cool we can do something in Turkey instead. I'm excited to see it.
"Working with Honda has been a pleasure. They are super motivated every single race and super-passionate to deliver the best they can."
After his last-gasp disappointment at Sochi, where he missed out on a maiden victory by staying out on slicks in the rain while leading, Lando Norris will bid to consolidate his and McLaren's progress with another solid outing at a venue where Ferrari have been the most successful team.
But with rain forecast to arrive for Saturday and Sunday, it is difficult for anyone to make reliable plans or predictions.