|© AP Photo/Balazs Czagany
World champion Sebastian Vettel heads to the Belgian Grand Prix trying to figure out how to make up a 42-point deficit on overall leader Fernando Alonso, and how to prevent others from overtaking him as Alonso's main rival.
Last season, it was the opposite as rivals sought to catch Vettel's unstoppable Red Bull. This weekend, the German faces competition in a thrillingly wide-open championship.
The two-time champion sits in third place overall heading into Spa, two points behind teammate Mark Webber. Former champions Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen are within five and six points of Vettel, respectively.
"It's going to be an extremely tough, tactical and interesting finale to the season," said Hamilton, the 2008 champion.
Vettel won five of the six opening races last season before a minor slump offered his rivals a glimmer of hope. Vettel had been beaten in four of his last five races heading into last year's race in Spa, yet was still more than 80 points ahead of his challengers and went on to win the race from pole position to reassert his authority on the championship.
He needs to do so again on Sunday, because there are five drivers in realistic contention for the title, with only 48 points separating Alonso in first and Finn Kimi Raikkonen in fifth.
"There's no team with a clear advantage, although we're all pushing hard to catch Fernando's points tally," Hamilton said. "There's still everything to play for."
The 25-year-old Vettel badly needs to win in Spa in order to stop Alonso edging closer to his third F1 title. Webber -- at the age of 36 -- is meanwhile proving a tough adversary within the Red Bull camp with wins at Monaco and the British Grand Prix this season.
Vettel's only race win came at the Bahrain Grand Prix in April and he has managed only a total of three podium spots from 11 races so far.
Still, he thinks the Spa circuit suits him and hopes it will revitalize his challenge.
"The Spa circuit is defined by the surrounding nature and it's one of my favourite tracks. I was very happy to have won there last year," he said. "Spa offers every type of racing corner; ultra-fast, medium-fast and slow chicanes, that alternate with fast straights. The difference in altitude and the unpredictable weather really make the track a big challenge."
The 7.004-kilometer (4.352-mile) circuit is the longest track on the calendar and -- along with Monaco -- the most demanding.
Corners such as Eau Rouge and Blanchimont push drivers and tyres to the absolute limit.
"Spa is the best track to have after a break and it's extremely rewarding for drivers at that venue. It's obviously remained pretty much unchanged for some time and it has a lot of character," Webber said. "It's one of the classic tracks where you feel like an F1 car belongs on the circuit. We're looking forward to going there and challenging for the victory."
Because of the vast size of the track, different microclimates lead to variable weather conditions -- meaning it can be raining on one part of the track and sunny at another.
"It's going to be an extremely tough, tactical and interesting finale to the season." - Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton, who won at Spa in 2010 -- ahead of Webber -- is brimming with confidence after heading into the month-long summer break with a victory from pole at the Hungarian Grand Prix last month.
"My win in Hungary was a fantastic way to go into the summer break. It had the added bonus of sending the whole team away for their holidays with a positive feeling in their hearts," Hamilton said. "It's also given me the hope and assurance that we can come back for the final nine races with a real chance to go for both world championships."
Raikkonen is one point behind Hamilton and, although seeking his first win of the season, the 2007 champion has been driving consistently with five podium spots, including second place behind the British driver in Hungary.
A win for Hamilton or Raikkonen on Sunday would continue to throw the championship open and increase the pressure on Vettel.
"Given the unpredictability of the sport, I think it's still difficult to predict accurately who'll win the next Grand Prix," Hamilton said. "But I reckon the coming few weeks ought to give us a much clearer idea of the destination of the world title."